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By Kara Newman

Cinco de Mayo–which commemorates the 1862 victory of the Mexican army over the French­—not   Mexico’s Independence Day, as many mistakenly believe—is a day to celebrate Mexico’s heritage. And that rich heritage includes Tequila, the blue agave-based spirit made in Mexico’s hilly Jalisco province.

Sure, in the United States, the liquor is often pigeonholed as the stuff of machine-made margaritas, or the potent party elixir of spring breakers and roughneck barflies.

But if you think you know Tequila, think again.

“It’s very suprising to me that some people don’t even realize Tequila is the spirit of Mexico,” says Courtenay Greenleaf, Tequila Librarian at New York’s La Biblioteca. (And yes. That is in fact her very cool title.) “They just think it’s a cheap shooter from their college days. They aren’t even aware you can sip Tequila and Mezcal very much the same way you would a Cognac or a Scotch.”

Indeed, well-made, high-quality Tequila can be incredibly complex and nuanced, ranging from the light, honeyed and citrusy notes of the clear-like-water, blanco styles to the deeper, smokier cocoa and caramel flavors of the golden-colored reposado styles.

In short, whether enjoyed neat or mixed into a modern cocktail, this potent elixiir not only deserves another try, it deserves significant space on your top shelf.

Here are a few delicious upscale Tequila drinks and bottles to try—on this May 5th and beyond.

First Word

Recipe courtesy Nate Caudle, bartender at Clive’s Classic Lounge in Victoria, British Columbia

What could be easier than this Tequila riff on the classic Last Word cocktail? Both drinks are made with equal measures of their ingredients.

1 ounce Reposado Tequila
1 ounce Esprit de June liqueur
1 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
1 ounce lemon juice
Lemon slice, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients with ice. Shake well, and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon slice.


The Tijuana Gigolo

Recipe courtesy Raul Yrastorza, general manager at Las Perlas in Los Angeles

This drink, which bears a passing resemblance to the classic Diablo cocktail, is one of the most popular summer cocktails at Las Perlas.

3 fresh blackberries
¾ ounce blanco Tequila
1 ounce Amaro CioCiaro (Cynar may be substituted)
½ ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
¾ ounce lime juice
Ginger beer for topping
Orange twist and blackberry, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, muddle three blackberries. Add the Tequila, amaro, orange Curaçao, bitters, lime juice and ice. Shake and dump out the contents of the shaker (including the ice) into a tall Collins glass. Top with ginger beer and garnish with a fresh blackberry and orange twist.

Mayan Concubine

Recipe courtesy Erick Castro, bartender and proprietor at Polite Provisions in San Diego

The Tequila’s light pepper notes and bitters perfectly balance out this simple, fruit-forward mixer. The tasty result can often make this drink disappear rather quickly.

2 ounces Partida Reposado
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
½ ounce simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
Lemon peel, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.


Midnight Luna

Recipe courtesy Courtenay Greenleaf, Tequila librarian at La Biblioteca in New York City

This deep-hued drink is “like our Tequila Manhattan,” Greenleaf says.

1½ ounces Riazul Añejo Tequila
1½ ounces hibiscus syrup (such as Toriani)
1½ ounces sweet vermouth
½ ounce lemon juice
Lemon twist, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients with ice. Shake well, and strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.


Tequilas too good to mix

Sure, these Tequilas can go in a cocktail. But each is smooth and flavorful enough for straight-up sipping.

98 Tequila Don Julio 1942. A stunning limited-edition añejo. The golden color and caramel scent hint at what’s to come: sweet agave flavor, a lingering whisper of smoke, and mellow notes of tropical fruit, Sauternes and butterscotch. Diageo Americas.
abv: 40%                Price: $125

96 Siete Leguas Reposado. An all-around favorite for sipping or mixing, this highlands Tequila has an almost whiskey-like feel. Pale straw hue, with lightly smoky and herbaceous flavors finishing with a hint of vanilla. Gemini Spirits and Wine.
abv: 40%           Price: $45

95 Cazul 100 Tequila Añejo Reserva. Consider this dessert-like añejo for after-dinner sipping. The fruity, luscious flavors run to baked pears and bananas drizzled with honey, although it retains a piquant peppery note, too. Deutsch Family Wines & Spirits.
abv: 40%     Price: $40

95 Partida Elegante Extra Añejo Tequila. Seeking a splurge or a special gift bottle? This super-smooth, limited-edition extra añejo is aged up to 40 months. The flavors evolve with every sip: an initial flurry of black pepper, sprightly jalapeño and vanilla settles into warm, mellow crème brûlée. Partida Tequila.
abv: 40%          Price: $350

93 Corzo Tequila Silver. A clean, lean Tequila with an herbal, grassy scent and soft feel. Good mix of bracing mineral notes and agave sweetness. Tequila Cazadores.
abv: 40%             Price: $48

Tequila Label Decoder

Blanco: The Tequila may be unaged, or aged for up to two months and still be considered blanco. Also called “silver” or plata.

Reposado: The Tequila “rested” in oak barrels from two months to one year.

Añejo: Tequila aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year. Extra Añejo, or “extra old,” indicates that it has been aged for three years or more.

Mixto: If you see this, put the bottle back on the shelf. It means the spirit is not 100% agave. Bottom line: This is a shortcut to Hangover City.

Gold: Also called joven abocado. This is a blanco Tequila with flavoring and coloring added, typically via caramel.

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