Ten Exceptional Sipping Tequilas That You Have Probably Never Heard Of

America’s thirst for top quality tequila continues to grow by leaps and bounds. According to the Distillers Council of the US (DISCUS), the US imported 18.5 million 9-liter cases of tequila in 2018. The number is probably understated since not all tequila importers report their US purchases to DISCUS. Shipments were up 7.7% over 2017.

Imports of high end premium and super premium tequilas showed even faster growth, rising from 5.09 million cases to 5.75. At a growth rate of 13%, that was almost double the overall growth in the tequila market. Since 2003, revenue from sales of high end premium tequilas in the US have grown by 456.8% to $405 million, while revenues from sales of super premium tequila have grown by 819.7% to an astounding $1.289 billion. That’s larger than the entire tequila market was in 2003.

The demand for agave has produced a planting boom. There are currently more than 500 million blue agave plants growing in Jalisco province. This year, an acute agave shortage has caused prices to spike from an average of around five pesos a kilogram several years ago to more than 25 pesos per kilogram. The supply shortage is expected to ease over the next several years, but will still remain tight.

There are currently 138 distilleries licensed to produce tequila in Mexico. Under Mexican law, tequila distilleries are not allowed to produce any other spirit. Each tequila producer is assigned a Normas Oficiales Mexicanas (NOM) number. Each bottle of 100% blue agave tequila must carry the NOM of the distillery where it was produced.

A field of Agave tequilana, commonly called blue agave (agave azul) or tequila agave, is an agave plant that is an important economic product of Jalisco, Mexico. In the background is the famous Tequila Volcano or Volcán de Tequila

If a tequila brand switches distillery, the NOM it will carry on the bottle will also change to reflect the new producer. Tequila distilleries can sometimes have multiple NOMs. That usually happens as a result of industry consolidation. Conversely, multiple distilleries operated by the same company can carry the same NOM. Cuervo, for example, operates several distilleries in Jalisco but they all carry the same NOM.

At last count, there were 1,588 different brands of tequila being produced in Mexico. Collectively, those brands have more than 4,000 different expressions of tequila. It’s not uncommon for a tequila distillery to produce dozens of different brands of tequila for multiple owners.

One of the interesting features in the evolution of the Mexican tequila industry is that many family owned distilleries have sold off individual brands to international beverage companies while retaining ownership of the distillery and continuing to produce that particular tequila under a supply contract.

There are a number of databases that allow you to look up the NOM of a tequila distillery and see what other brands are being produced there. See, for example, the NOM data base at Tequila.net or Tequila Matchmaker.  

Just because a distillery produces multiple brand of tequilas doesn’t mean they all taste the same. Think of a bakery producing many different types of bread from the same basic mixture of flour, water and yeast.

The tequila making process is straightforward. Piñas are cooked and then crushed to extract the juice. The liquid, called mosto, is fermented, distilled and then matured for some period of time until it is bottled.

In reality, there are about 20 major decision-making steps in producing tequila and countless variations on each of those steps. Agave, for example, can be cooked in stone ovens, hornos, steel autoclaves, a large pressure cooker, or the juice can be extracted from the raw agave, via a diffuser, and then cooked. Likewise, the cooking temperature and time can also be varied. Agave can be crushed using a stone wheel, a tahona, or a series of rollers and so forth. Every variation can create a particular aroma and taste profile. There are an equally large variety of options when it comes to fermentation, distillation and maturation.

Blue agave bolas, referred to as pineapples, sit in a pile in a tequila distillery in Jalisco state, Mexico. The 'Piñas' or 'bolas' are piled in the factory awaiting to be put into an oven where they are baked to allow the juices be squeezed out later in the process.

 In addition, tequilas produced in different ways can be blended to create additional aroma and taste profiles. For example, the agave used to produce Tesoro de Don Felipe is 100% crushed using a tahona, while the agave used to produce Tapatio is crushed both by a tahona (20%) and rollers (80%). Both tequilas are produced at the La Alteña distillery in the highlands of Jalisco, just outside Arandas, for different brand owners.

Below is a list of 10 tequilas that make interesting sipping tequilas. Some are better known and widely distributed, others less so. It all depends, of course, on your knowledge of tequila. They are generally priced at $50 or less, but prices can vary widely between states. Moreover, being readily available can be a reflection of the brand owner’s distribution muscle and doesn’t necessarily mean the brand is widely recognized. While these tequilas make outstanding sippers, nothing precludes their use in mixed drinks as well.

Should you opt for a blanco or an extra añejo? That depends what you are looking for. If you are partial to brown spirits, then an añejo or extra añejo will be more your style. Añejo tequilas can be aged in oak barrels, not to exceed 600 liters, for one to three years, while extra añejo are aged for three years or more. Patron has released a 10 YO extra añejo, while Lote Fuenteseca has released a 12 and 18-year-old extra añejo, which are currently the oldest tequilas released.

If you are looking for terroir influences, however, that best capture the nuance of the agave, then an unaged blanco will give you more of the essence and subtlety of the agave than one that has been subjected to extended wood aging. It all depends on your taste.


Partida, Tequila Reposado, 40% ABV, 750 ml, NOM 1502, $45

Partida controls its entire production process, from exclusively using their own agaves, through production and bottling. This is a highland tequila, whose piñas are grown on a single estate in the rich volcanic soil around Amatitán, and are harvested at between seven and ten years of age. The reposado is aged for six months in ex-Tennessee whiskey barrels from Jack Daniels.

This is a light but very flavorful Tequila. Think of it as an ideal aperitif. On the nose, there are aromas of sweet, cooked agave, along with vanilla, a touch of citrus peel and almond notes. There are additional elements of pear and white flower, white pepper and ginger, along with herbal and earthy notes that hang in the background. There is also a hint of minerality that comes through. On the palate, the tequila is very smooth and silky, almost buttery, with hints of butterscotch, lemon, a touch of apricot, along with vanilla and roasted nuts. The finish is long, sweet, with lingering vanilla and butterscotch notes and just a touch of mint. 


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