According to Tequila author Joanne Weir, there are two effective strategies for putting together a tequila tasting. A "vertical" flight means tasting several types — progressing from blanco to reposado to anejo — from the same producer, whereas a "horizontal" flight means pouring a number of brands of a particular style (again, blanco, reposado or anejo).
She also suggests choosing tequilas that represent Mexico's highland and lowland growing regions. The colder temperatures and rich red clay of the highlands yield tequilas that are sweeter and fruitier; the volcanic soil of the lowlands imparts dryer, richer, earthier qualities to the liquor.
For our tasting, we chose two blancos, two reposados and two anejos all readily available in the Tampa Bay area, ranging between $40 and $60 (expensive, but these are slow sippers, so a bottle lasts a long time. If you're making margaritas, use less expensive stuff like your old pal Cuervo Gold). In the absence of special Riedel tequila glasses, Weir advised us to use tall, skinny champagne flutes for our tasting — a small opening to trap the heady aromas in the glass.
We poured about an ounce of the two blancos in our glasses, sniffed, swirled and tasted as we would at a wine tasting. As Weir instructs, "Swirl the tequila in your mouth and let it get to your mouth temperature, then swallow." Between each category, we cleansed our palates with tortilla chips and an agua fresca of watermelon juice mixed with lime (which, coincidentally, made a great tequila mixer once the formal part of our tasting was done).
In short, our tasting was a revelation, many of the bottles rivaling fine whiskies or cognacs in complexity and appeal. Here's what we tasted in order of preference.
1 EL TESORO ANEJO ($45.99) It's a treasure, indeed. Our favorite by a good bit, El Tesoro claims to be the only 100 percent blue agave tequila double distilled at 80 proof and bottled without any additional water. With vanilla and caramel imparted by two to three years in oak barrels, it's as lush as a fine cognac but with a spirit that is fresher and spicier (a little nutmeg, a little ancho zing). A pretty pale gold color and long, mellow finish make this one worth sipping slowly. This is snifter stuff, not for the birdbath-sized margarita.
2 DON JULIO REPOSADO ($52.99) Soft and smooth, it rolled off the tongue without leaving tequila's telltale alcohol burn on its long, silky finish. Spending up to 11 months in charred oak bourbon barrels, it has a sweetness and viscosity that make it seem appropriate with dessert, or even in lieu of dessert — chocolate and vanilla, gentle cinnamon and a waft of citrus on the exhale. What's not to like?
3 7 LEGUAS BLANCO ($39.99) 7 Leguas ("Seven Leagues") was the name of Pancho Villa's horse. We weren't sure what this might indicate about its flavor, but this full-bodied clear tequila, made by one of the oldest distilleries in Mexico, won us over with a lot of herbal oomph and appealing vegetal flavors (dill, asparagus). Experts like Weir say this highlands blanco expresses the essence of agave, its flavors a balance of mild smokiness, earth and floral high notes. Despite a little fire on the finish, it comes across as elegant and sophisticated.
4 PATRÓN REPOSADO ($47.99) Patrón is the first good tequila many of us try (having tired of the sledgehammer-hangovers of the familiar cheapies). Cynics say its meteoric rise in popularity is all about savvy marketing of a remarkably consistent product. Whereas it used to be produced by 7 Leguas, it's no longer an artisanal product but still has a balance of spice, oaky vanilla and herbaceousness on the finish that make it mighty appealing. Several tasters admired its soft and smooth character, while others thought it lacked personality.
5 CABO WABO ANEJO ($59.99) One of the only lowlands tequilas in our lineup, this is singer Sammy Hagar's project. It's got a signature salty, earthy nose, with a wallop of alcohol heat on the finish that we associate with tequila. But this yellow-gold liquor has a lush, oily mouth-feel, fruit that reminded us of smoky grilled pineapple, and a long, peppery finish. A little bitterness prevented us from wholeheartedly embracing the Cabo.
6 CORAZÓN BLANCO ($44.99) Hotter and thinner than any of the others we tasted — not bad in a prospective date, but not what we were looking for in a tequila. A blanco should be the truest expression of a distiller, but we had a hard time really agreeing on its character. With mild fruit and subtle smokiness, it was crisp with a sharp punch of alcohol.