Tequila: what it is and how to drink it

Jonathan Goodall / 14 June 2016

With supermarkets stocking a good range of quality 100% agave tequila brands there has never been a better time to put aside your reservations rediscover tequila.



Student party shenanigans dragged tequila’s reputation somewhere lower than a rattlesnake’s belly. 

The purpose of ‘shooting’ it, between a lick of salt and a bite of lime, is to maximize intoxication while masking off-flavours and alcohol-burn in low-grade tequila. But such gauche, ostentatious consumption is wholly unnecessary with the smooth, well-balanced, sip-able tequilas now available in the UK. It’s time for some myth busting.

What is tequila?

Firstly, tequila is not made from cactus juice, and it doesn’t contain a worm. Tequila is produced from blue agave, a succulent member of the lily family, which flourishes in volcanic soil in the arid highlands of the state of Jalisco. 

It takes a brave jimador (or ‘cutter’), armed with a brutal blade on a pole, to release the agave’s starchy heart (piña) from its prison of tall spiky leaves. Once the piña is sprung its sweet juice is extracted, fermented and distilled, revealing the lengths men will go to for a stiff drink.

To be called tequila the spirit must be produced within a specified region of Mexico, mostly around Jalisco, and it must contain at least 51% blue agave. In practice, it’s better than that. My survey of British supermarkets failed to turn up a single tequila brand that didn’t boast ‘100% blue agave’ on the label.

Blue agave, the plant used to make tequila

Blue agave should make up at least 51% of tequila, but there are many brands made from 100% blue agave.

Is there a worm in tequila?

Mescal is an umbrella term for all agave distillates, with a fairly flexible approach to agave content. You might find a ‘worm’ – which is actually the larva of an agave moth – in a bottle of mescal, but not tequila. The tequila regulatory council doesn't allow worms (or scorpions) to be included in bottles of tequila.

Different types of tequila

Blanco (white), aka Plata (silver) tequila is a clear peppery spirit, bottled as soon as it’s made. 

Oro (gold) tequila takes its colour and slightly sweeter flavour from a dash of caramel or barrel-aged spirit. 

Reposado tequila, also golden in colour, spends up to a year in oak barrels (reposado means “rested”), taking on a smoky, toffee-ish quality. 

Anejo tequila is an aged tequila with a mellow taste that is best enjoyed neat.

How to drink tequila

Blanco, oro and reposado tequila can all be enjoyed neat, perhaps on ice with a slice of lime, or in cocktails like the irresistibly zingy Margarita. 

The quickest and easiest tequila cocktail, the Mexican equivalent of a G&T, is a Paloma. Pour a generous shot of tequila over ice, dash it with freshly squeezed lime juice and top it up with sparkling grapefruit juice (I strongly recommend the Galvanina brand, available in selected Waitrose).

Visit our cocktail recipe section for more cocktail ideas

When it comes to Anejo (Aged) tequilas, hold the lime, the mixers and anything else for that matter. These deep, mellow, smooth tequilas mix ripe fruity flavours with spicy notes of chocolate, vanilla and coffee – and must be savoured neat to be believed.

Maybe it’s due to the creation in 1994 of the Consejo Regulador del Tequila to regulate the tequila industry; or maybe it’s a dawning realization that what works in the High Chaparral doesn’t always work in High Wycombe. Whatever’s behind it, tequila has undergone a transformation as complete and startling as an agave moth.

Three best tequila brands

Try these (all 100% agave and 100% sip-able)

Olmeca Altos Plata
Fruity and aromatic with a smooth, citric palate (38% alcohol)
£20.50 Waitrose

El Jimador Reposado
Sweet, smooth and peppery with a whiff of geraniums (38%)
£20 Sainsbury’s

Don Julio Anejo
Smooth, rich and complex with citrus and vanilla notes (38%)
£49.95, thewhiskyexchange.com

Prices correct at time of writing

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.