All tequila comes from fermenting and distilling the juice of crushed blue agave plants – but what happens during the distillation process changes everything.
Many people think there are only three kinds of tequila, but today five main types of tequila are officially recognized. Beyond that, there are many more types of tequila infusions, mixes, and creamy concoctions.
Here we explain the differences between tequilas to help you know what to buy and how to enjoy it. The secret is that the subtle differences and flavors mostly come from the techniques behind making each type of tequila.
How to Understand the Differences Between Tequila
Many tequilas on the market are young, typically fermenting for only a few weeks. These tequilas retain the iconic clear appearance, and you’ll see them labeled as blanco (white), plata (silver) or platinum.
Tequilas that have been aged for longer take on the color of the wood barrels in which they sit, which explains the golden browns and dark mahogany colors. These are called ‘rested,’ reposado, or aged, ‘añejo,’ tequila.
But what’s the best type of tequila?
True ‘tequileros’ (tequila experts) argue that the only real tequila is white or young, because it is the closest way to taste the agave in its purest, unaltered form.
Young tequilas have earthy, natural, and raw flavors. These give you insight into the factors that influence taste, such as the soil, climate, and altitude where the agave plants grow.
For example, the agave fields in the highlands of Jalisco are dominated by red clay soil – this produces fruity and floral flavors, which create softer and rounder tequilas. Highland tequilas also tend to have a higher sugar content and display the sweetness of the agave. In the lowlands, the volcanic soil tends to create botanic tequilas with earthy, peppery, and herbaceous flavors. Lowland agaves are typically smaller with slightly less sugar. So when you drink young tequila, you are truly getting a taste of Mexico.
This is not everyone’s view, though; the international world embraced aged tequila, which is more like a fine cognac or whisky. This is especially demonstrated by the increasing number of extra añejos aged for 5 to 10 years that cost upwards of $1,000–2,000. The International Wine and Spirit Research (IWS) says 100% agave tequila has become one of the most dominant product attributes consumers seek.
Aged tequilas have a smoother and refined flavor, with caramel, butterscotch, honey, and chocolate notes. This is why they are quite popular in international markets.
The 5 Levels of Tequila
Tequila is divided into five main categories, which indicate the different levels of aging. Tequila is typically aged in wooden barrels, which explains the golden browns and dark mahogany colorings:
- Silver, White, Platinum or Young Tequila: aged less than two months, and considered the truest type of tequila.
- Tequila Gold (oro) or Mixed (mixto): aged less than two months, sometimes with coloring added so it looks aged. This is usually the cheapest type of tequila, mixed with sugars other than agave. But check the label: some gold tequilas are blended white and reposado tequila, which are higher quality.
- Tequila Reposado: aged two months to a year.
- Añejo Tequila: aged one to three years.
- Tequila Extra Añejo: aged longer than three years, a newer type of tequila.
Traditionally, it was common to see only three types of tequila for sale. Aged tequilas are a newer product – and generally pricier – but as demand grows, there are a lot more on the shelf.
Companies are also starting to experiment outside of the five accepted levels of tequila. Don Julio, for example, released a crystalline aged tequila (cristalino) which we explain below.
Types Of Tequila Brands
The first factor to consider about different types of tequila brands is whether they produce premium or lower quality tequila. This also relates to whether they are an expensive or cheap brand.
By law, authentic tequila only needs to contain 51% of agave sugar, creating one of the most important distinctions between the types of tequila brands.
Before buying anything, check whether the tequila type is:
- 100% pure agave: Premium tequila is labelled as ‘100% agave’ or ‘pure agave.’ This type of tequila is much higher quality and, although more expensive, worth the price even for mixing cocktails. This increases the distinct agave flavors.
- Mixed (mixto): tequila that contains only 51% agave can be made up with any number of other sugars, such as cane or corn sugar. The price is usually better, so many bars use them for making cocktails. But you can’t rely on the health benefits (especially celiacs) or a clean hangover associated with pure tequila.
The next distinct factor to check is where the tequila is produced: by law all tequila must be grown and distilled in the authorized states in Mexico. Check for the ‘made in Mexico’ (hecho en Mexico) stamp.
This doesn’t stop companies from bottling it outside of these states, or even outside of Mexico. True tequila experts say this reduces the quality. On each bottle, you will find a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) number, which comes from Mexico’s tequila regulatory board. This number will show you exactly where your tequila comes from so you can check the quality.
The final difference is how the tequila is made:
- traditional or artisanal tequila: the agave is cooked in an oven, crushed with a stone Tahona wheel, fermented in open tanks with the fibers, and distilled in copper stills.
- modern methods: the agave is cooked faster with pressurized steam in an autoclave, crushed with a roller mill, then fermented and distilled in stainless steel containers.
- industrial or commercial tequila: a diffusor is used to extract the agave sugar, and then column stills are used.
Some say that modern and commercial techniques give a more consistent and cleaner flavor. Others argue that certain traditional techniques draw out different and stronger flavors from the agave. Most of the top tequilas will incorporate a mix of the two. Some choose just one traditional technique that they think affects flavor the most, alongside modern methods, for example:
- using a wild or proprietary yeast, like Don Julio.
- taking longer to cook the tequila and absorb flavors from clay ovens, like Herradura or Jose Cuervo.
- using a motorized stone wheel to crush the agave (ie. a tractor vs a horse or donkey), like Fortaleza, 7 Leguaus, El Tesoro, and Gran Patron Piedra.
The combination of these techniques also allows tequila brands to experiment and create their own unique flavors that are hard to copy.
Types of Tequila Explained: Blanco vs Reposado vs Añejo
1. Silver, White, or Platinum Tequila
This is tequila in its purest form, crystal clear and un-aged. It is bottled directly after distillation or stored in stainless steel tanks for no more than two months. If it’s closer to the two-month mark, you’ll notice a slightly smoother (suave) taste.
Young tequila captures the earthy flavors, natural sweetness, and intensity of the agave plant. The flavors are dominated by the agave and show the skill of the distillery. There’s no aging to hide or smooth out any flaws.
It is also considered the best type of tequila to use in cocktails, such as margaritas, palomas and other light or citrus-based drinks. Although, you’ll best taste the agave notes by sipping it neat.
2. Gold or Joven Tequila
This is also young tequila but is usually a ‘mixto‘ tequila. It is also referred to as ‘joven’ (young). Not many people drink joven straight in Mexico but it is popular abroad for shots and cocktails.
It is likely to have a mixture of sugars, and flavorings or colorings to make it golden. They are generally less expensive, lower quality, and commonly used in low-end bars for mixed drinks – the kind of tequila that gives you a worse hangover.
Some exceptions exist, though, where white and aged tequilas are blended to create a golden color, without sacrificing the 100% agave quality. Check if the bottle is labeled as 100% or agave puro (pure agave).
In such cases, the joven tequila combines the bright, strong notes of a young agave, with some mature, smooth back-notes. You might notice floral flavors with vanilla undertones.
This tequila type can handle stronger cocktail mixes, like a mezcal mule, with ginger beer, lime juice, and aguamiel (agave nectar).
3. Tequila Reposado
Reposado tequila is ‘rested’ tequila, where the liquid is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks from 2 up to 12 months. Tequila reposado takes on a golden color and distinct taste from the wood barrel, but without overpowering the agave.
There is a variety of wood types used to create distinct flavors, the most common being American and French oak. The flavors are woodier if aged in new barrels.
Some producers also experiment with aging tequila in whiskey, cognac or wine barrels to create depth in the flavor profile. In these cases, the tequila takes on unique taste profiles from the previous alcohol.
You might notice vanilla, cinnamon or other spice flavors. With a more complex profile, it works as a substitute in an old fashion, manhattan or martini.
4. Añejo Tequila
Añejo tequila (ah-nyeh-ho, or aged tequila) has a deep amber color, resulting from a longer aging process of at least one year. The tequila is aged in barrels that are limited to 600L to enhance the contact and flavors from the wood.
The flavor becomes smoother, complex and richer, making añejo tequila one of the best types of tequila for sipping. You will start to note vanilla, caramel and honey notes, with a creamier texture.
At this age and price point, it is more of a sipping alcohol rather than used for cocktails.
5. Tequila Extra Añejo
This is a newer classification (since 2006) for tequilas that have been aged for more than three years. The color is much darker, almost mahogany. To the naked eye, it is hard to discern these extra-aged tequilas from other aged alcohols, like whisky or cognac.
The flavor is extremely smooth and rich in flavor, with a special creaminess. Aged tequilas also tend to be more expensive and are usually reserved for drinking neat. They can work as a dessert drink, or as a pre-dinner palate cleanser.
After four years, not much happens in the barrel except for costly evaporation. Initially, there weren’t many extra-aged tequilas older than three years because of the high evaporation and the agave flavor is masked. But like any aged alcohol, it is super suave (smooth) and becoming very popular.
This small market grows eight times faster than the general demand for tequila. Tapatio Extra Añejo, for example, is aged for some 15 years. Some of the oldest tequilas come from the brand Lote Fuenteseca, aged 9, 12 and 18 years old.
Many argue that it’s a fine line balancing the delicate agave flavors with the over-powering wood tones but some brands are finding their way through experimentation.
Newer Types of of Tequila
This is one of the latest trends in tequila, although not yet an officially recognized category. It was introduced in 2011 with the Don Julio 70 bottle to mark the distillery’s 70th anniversary. As international audiences embrace the sweet and smooth liquor, many brands are entering the market with their own versions.
Cristalino is an añejo or extra añejo tequila that is filtered, usually with carbon, to strip the tequila of its color so the liquid is clear. The idea was to reduce the strong aged barrel flavors, to see if the agave notes could be enhanced.
The end flavor retains the taste and texture of an aged tequila, while enhancing the fruity, floral and earthy notes of the agave. Cristalinos have fewer tannins, so it has a smoother mouthfeel.
Being among the first cristalinos, Don Julio 70 and Maestro Dobel Diamante are the most renown. But the market has quickly expanded to include popular brands such as San Matias Cristal, Herradura Ultra, Revolucion Añejo Cristalino, and Volcán De Mi Tierra Añejo Cristalino, 1800, Cazadores, El Mayor, and Cenote, Hornitos.
Today, there are around 50 brands of cristalino tequila in Mexico, of which some two dozen are available in the US. It has largely opened the tequila market to female and younger drinkers, mostly because the flavor is sweet, almost like candy or a rum. Although, some brands, like Herradura, add agave sugar so check the bottle.
Now, experiments with clear reposados are also starting to emerge. Certainly, it’s a good tequila for beginners to start with, or for those who don’t like overly strong agave flavors or alcohol fumes.
There are many more tequila-based products in the market, including
- Creamy tequilas (Creama de Tequila, or Tequila Cremes)
- Tequila liqueurs
- Infused tequilas – lemon, chili, pepper and more
- Flavored tequilas
Sure, one or two are fun to try, but they rarely come close to the premium flavors achieved in pure tequilas. Also, they are not usually 100 percent agave.