For most people, tequila conjures up memories of crazy parties with good friends, good music, and shots lined up at the bar. Then, perhaps, they remember the hangover the morning after. But tequila is so much more than just a party drink. Sweeter than gin and more flavourful than vodka, this under-appreciated Mexican spirit is the perfect base for summer cocktails.
Tequila is made from the fermented and distilled juices of the Blue Weber agave plant. In order to class as true tequila it must be distilled twice and contain at least 51% Weber blue agave. The best quality tequilas are 100% Weber blue, while those with lower content are referred to as mixtos, and considered to be of inferior quality. Tequila must also be produced in either the state of Jalisco, home to the town of Tequila, or in certain municipalities of the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
There are different types of tequila, categorised according to how long the spirit has been aged. Each has different qualities, making them suitable for different types of cocktail.
Blanco (white) or plata (silver) tequila is either unaged, or aged in neutral barrels for under two months. These tequilas have the purest tequila flavour, with the earthy, semi-sweet flavour of agave at its most prominent. With its fresh, slightly sweet notes, blanco tequilas make the perfect base for long, fruity cocktails.
Tequilas that have been aged in oak barrels take on oaky, caramel flavours in increasing amounts the longer the tequila is aged.
These include tequila resposado (rested), which is aged for between two months to a year, tequila añejo (aged or vintage), which is aged for between one and three years, and extra añejo, a category established in 2006 to denote tequila that has been aged for more than three years. Tequila joven (young) or oro (gold) is a budget version of the oak-aged tequila, made from a blend of blanco and resposado. Beware inferior versions made from unaged mixtos with colours and flavourings added to mimic the ageing process. With smoky sweet caramel and vanilla notes, oak-aged tequilas work well in cocktails that require more complex flavours.
If you are planning to make tequila cocktails, the classic choice has to be the tequila sunrise. Made with tequila blanco, orange juice and grenadine for that iconic sunrise effect, this fun fruity concoction was the cocktail of choice through the seventies, and will add a touch of retro cool to the evening.
Margaritas are another fruity favourite, perfect for summer. We love this classic margarita recipe from The Spruce Eats, a simple but refreshing combination of tequila blanco, triple sec and fresh lime juice.
There are various similar drinks within the margarita family, all based on the classic recipe. If you’re craving a sweeter cocktail, our recipe for pineapple margarita should hit the spot, or, for a more grown-up, balanced flavour, try a pomegranate and lime margarita. Margaritas also make the best slushies, and Olive Magazine’s frozen peach margarita is a truly delicious way to cool off on a hot day, and can even be served as a light, granita-style dessert.
Tequila and lime is a winning combination - the perfect balance of slightly sweet agave and zesty citrus - and even cocktails that aren’t technically margaritas often contain some fresh lime juice. If you like the idea of creating your own tequila cocktail, adding some lime is always a great place to start, but if you prefer something tried and tested, there are plenty of existing recipes to try.
The Mystic Marvel (recipe available from this cocktail list by Town and Country) is a tequila blanco and lime cocktail that showcases tequila’s Mexican heritage with the addition of prickly pear purée and agave syrup, served with a salted rim and an extra wedge of lime. If you prefer a long, thirst-quenching cocktail, you’ll love this tequila diablo rojo recipe by BBC Food, another tequila blanco and lime cocktail, topped up with ginger beer and crème de cassis and garnished with fresh pomegranate seeds.
For a tequila lime cocktail with a breath of chilli heat, try a Vampiro (recipe available from this cocktail list by Town and Country). This unique cocktail is made with sangrita, a mixture of orange, lime and grapefruit juices with hot chilli sauce, which just happens to be one of the traditional Mexican accompaniments for tequila.
The subtle sweetness of tequila also makes it a great choice for dessert cocktails that satisfy your sweet tooth without being too cloying. We love the Marble Queen (recipe available from this cocktail list by Town and Country), a creamy cocktail with a taste of the tropics, made from a simple combination of tequila blanco, coconut cream, and our old friend lime, which pairs beautifully with both. Or try this recipe for Dulce de Tequila for a grown-up candy flavour made from smoky tequila resposado, cognac and orange.
You could even try swapping vodka or other spirits for tequila for a Mexican twist on some of your old favourites. You might just find you like it better. Espresso martini made with tequila resposado (recipe available from this cocktail list by the Guardian) is a revelation, the hint of caramel from the resposado blending perfectly with the bitter espresso.
Brunch favourite the Bloody Mary also benefits from a Mexican upgrade in this Bloody Maria recipe from The Spruce Eats. Unlike vodka, tequila holds its own among the rich tomato and spicy Tabasco, adding an extra layer of sweet, earthy agave to the mix.
Other fun adaptations include the Wahaca Mule (recipe available from this cocktail list by The Guardian), a tequila version of the Moscow Mule, and the Brave Bull (recipe courtesy of The Spruce Eats), a tequila version of the Black Russian. You can even try swapping whiskey for tequila resposado to make a tequila old fashioned (recipe available from this cocktail list by The Guardian), a lighter, more summery version of the whiskey classic.
With so many to choose from, there’s sure to be a tequila cocktail to suit every palate. Try some at your next summer barbecue.