Don’t blame the tequila. It’s as innocent as the rolling hills of Jalisco, where neat rows of blue agave plants have been cultivated for more than 500 years. Tequila didn’t ask to be treated like some Tijuana donkey show by those with no appreciation for the effort required to coax the right balance of sweetness from the loamy earth. It didn’t ask to be prefaced with a lick of salt and chased with a wedge of lime—or mixed with cloying, neon-green margarita mixes—to mask its very existence. It didn’t ask to become the poster child for unrefined drinking. Still, that’s what happened.
Instead, blame Jimmy Buffett, Sammy Hagar, or the producers of every spring break movie since 1983 for sullying this fine liquor’s reputation. Then give North America’s first indigenous spirit—and the concept of moderation—another chance. Today’s premium sipping tequilas can stand up to the finest whiskeys, vodkas, and gins on the market, with artisanal craftsmanship and subtle, alluring flavors that bring nothing more to mind than the blue skies and warm breezes of its birthplace.
Commence your reintroduction to the Mexican spirit world with silver and platinum tequilas, which are as close as you can get to its essence. The agave used in Casa Dragones ($275; casadragones.com), for example, grows in the dark soil of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which is scattered with black obsidian lava rock and onyx boulders 1,200 meters above sea level. After a minimum of eight years, workers cut out the piñas (which resemble their namesake pineapples) at the peak of maturity. The resulting agave juice is fermented, distilled multiple times, and filtered before adding just a touch of aged tequila to balance the taste. The end product is tequila with an aroma of sweet roasted agave, notes of vanilla, spice, and pear, and a warm, hazelnut finish. Forget about that lost shaker of salt; this tequila should be enjoyed completely unadorned, with nary an ice cube or a drop of water in your snifter. It’s a sublime treat for a special occasion. Gran Patrón Platinum ($200; patronspirits.com), meanwhile, is smooth like butterscotch, with subtle pepper notes that fade to reveal honey, cream, and pear nectar. One sip and all thoughts of shot glasses and Señor Frog’s go out the window.
For those with shallower pockets, Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver ($53; milagrotequila.com) is balanced with notes of agave, vanilla, and a touch of grapefruit. Jose Cuervo Platino ($60; cuervo.com), one of the more upscale offerings from the biggest name in tequila, is a delightfully smooth pour, with an almost Scotch-like feel and hints of, yes, vanilla, but also citrus and assorted botanicals that are fun to pick out as the taste lingers on the tongue. If you’re looking for something flashier, consider the three flavors of Avión, the new artisinal tequila sourced from Jalisco and made famous by its cameo in HBO’s Entourage.
Today’s top-shelf choices really are a cut above the standard versions; if you’re looking for truly sippable tequila, spend the extra pesos on the good stuff . Granted, the entry-level offerings are still flavorful, but with their burn factor, they’re best mellowed out with a proper measure of fresh lime juice and triple sec—a quality margarita, say, on the beach. Remember, there’s a time and place for (almost) everything.