Do you have a (completely rational) fear of tequila? Do you flat-out hate the stuff? If so, I can almost guarantee that you’re drinking it wrong. After spending a year in Mexico, I finally learned the secret: how to drink tequila like a Mexican… and actually enjoy this potent drink.
You might also like my post with 8 tequila cocktail recipes to try at home. El Niño anyone?
How to drink Tequila like a Non-Mexican
Before we get into the details, let’s take a good hard stare at how the rest of us tend to approach the subject of tequila drinking…or should I say tequila slamming.
More often that not, it goes a little something like this:
- Enter the bar, and consume a dozen or so other drinks.
- Realise it’s past midnight and a) you want to dance or b) you still feel too sober to call it a good Friday night.
- Shout to your friends, “Tequilas?!”
- After mixed reactions of “hell yeahs” (from the people who think they’re sober but definitely aren’t) and “urghhh, I hate tequila” (from the people who are actually sober), head to the bar.
- Ordering process: “[x number of] tequilas please.”
- Return to friends with a tray full of evil clear liquid in shot glasses complete with a scattering of lime wedges and salt.
- Add salt to the back of the hand. Deep breath.
- Get a wedge of lime ready to drown out the tequila pain. Take another deep breath.
- Get a beer bottle within grabbing distance, in case the lime doesn’t work. Double deep breath.
- Round of chanting with friends.
- “Wait!!!!! Brian’s not ready.”
- Brian, who was trying to get out of the whole tequila drinking business, is forced by peer pressure to pick up his glass.
- Lick salt.
- Throw the tequila towards your mouth.
- Try to swallow as your throat closes in protest.
- Swallow harder while trying to breathe through your nose.
- Finally, swallow the liquid which burns all the way down to your stomach.
- Shove a ridiculously large amount of sharp citrus into your mouth and suck on it like you’re a newborn given your first dummy/pacifier.
- Discard lime, take a huge swig of beer, and wipe tears from your eyes.
- Cheer at the round of empty glasses and breathe a secret sigh of relief that it’s over…
- Until some b@stard (who thinks they’re sober but really isn’t) shouts “Another round!”
Often, after the first tequila, this process is repeated until your memory turns blank in the way it would do if you were hit in the back of the head by a shovel – which actually feels as though it might have happened when you wake up the next morning, fully clothed, lying face down in the running position wondering why, why, why and swearing never again.
“Tequila, it makes me happy. Tequila, I feel alright.” Lyrics from chart hit “Tequila” by UK band Terrorvision. The problem was tequila didn’t make me happy and it certainly didn’t make me feel alright…until I learned how to drink it properly.
The above is a formula I’ve seen played out in bars, clubs, and even restaurants around the world. Hell, I’ve drunk tequila that way in bars, clubs, and restaurants around the world.
So much so that when I went to Mexico, I was adamant I didn’t want to touch the stuff. No longer in my 20’s, the tequila hangovers were not worth it and I’d long disqualified this Mexican spirit on the grounds it simply didn’t taste good.
When I explained this to my Mexican friends there was a unanimous response – the reason I didn’t like tequila was because I was drinking it all wrong.
And, with that realisation, I was booked in for some intense re-education – I was sent to the town of Tequila, Jalisco; the town that is home to Jose Cuervo; the birthplace of tequila; and the town where I finally learned how to drink this Mexican drink properly.
How to drink tequila like a Mexican
If I had to identify where us non-Mexicans go wrong in our tequila drinking, I’d say right at the very first step. Because, for the most part, tequila is a drink we use to accelerate the D in Drunk (or P in Pissed if we’re being really British about it).
But there’s a more fundamental reason why people drink tequila as a quick shot – because tequila outside of Mexico simply doesn’t taste good.
The stuff that we guzzle down in bars or pick up in supermarkets is low-grade, filthy booze that does nothing other than give tequila a bad name (and us a bad head).
The good news is that with online purchasing opportunities ever-expanding, it’s not so difficult to get your hands on good tequila (it’s even easier in the USA and Canada which already imports a much broader range of tequilas than we get in Europe).
And with a good tequila in your glass, the drink completely transforms from something you might throw down your neck with a wince, to something you can sip and savour like you might a fine whisky.
How do you choose a good tequila?
Most people un-schooled in tequila give very little thought to to what they are buying, opting for either the “fun” bottle (the one that features a plastic sombrero on the top together with an offensive caricature of a Mexican man) or, for a more serious occasion, a generic bottle of Jose Cuervo.
However, much the same as a brandless bottle of whisky off the supermarket shelf isn’t going to taste as smooth as a 25-year Talisker, choosing a good tequila involves quite a bit more understanding and thought.
Here are the main things to look for when choosing a good tequila.
Always buy 100% Agave
Agave (pronounced agar-bay), is the plant that tequila is made from and is the very foundation of good tequila. Yet, despite growing in abundance in Mexico, not all tequilas are made using 100% blue agave.
Why is that a bad thing? Well, let’s think for a moment about a packet of pork sausages that only contain 50% pork. Did you shudder? I did too. The same applies to tequila (minus the pig eyeballs). The non-agave ingredients are usually lower quality, less natural, affect the taste of the drink, and can often contribute to those tequila hangovers that are so hard to handle (because the blend includes sugar as an additive).
In short, if you make only make one change in your tequila drinking habits, then make it this: only ever drink tequila that is made from 100% agave.
Pro Tequila Tip: some brands may state they are made “with blue agave” but unless they say 100%, you are still getting a blend.
Drink the oldest tequila you can find (and afford)
Like a fine whiskey, tequila is one of those drinks that improves with age. And, the longer tequila has been aged, the more mellow and, yes, the more drinkable, it will be.
The clear tequila that we most commonly slug back in bars is usually fresh out of the vat and as a result, is pretty rough to drink – even in Mexico. Hence the need to chase this baby brew with lime and salt.
However, drink a tequila that is even a little bit older and the taste and drinkability increase dramatically.
Tequila usually falls into these categories:
- Blanco – completely unaged tequila that has spent less than 2 months in steel or neutral oak barrels
- Joven – as above but is often gold coloured (see below)
- Reposado – aged more than 2 months but less than 1 year in oak barrels
- Añejo – aged 1-3 years in oak barrels
- Extra Añejo – aged more than 3 years in oak barrels
What about golden tequila?
As tequila ages in the barrel, the colour of the liquid changes, creating the difference between white tequila (blanco) and gold tequila (oro). However, don’t be fooled – unless the tequila is añejo (aged), then any golden colour has been added artificially to give the illusion that you’re drinking a premium (older) product. Some joven tequila may get its gold colour from being blended with añejo tequila – read the label.
If you’re looking for a drink that can be sipped instead of taken as a shot, but without spending a huge amount of money then look for tequila that is “reposado”. In Spanish that translates as “rested” meaning the tequila has sat in the barrel a little while allowing the sharpness to dissipate, the flavour to develop and the drinkability to enhance.
If you can, try añejo or extra añejo for a smoother taste.
Want to try it at home? Click here to buy tequila online.
What about the tequila worm?
Most people are familiar with the concept of the worm in tequila bottles. Reputed to be hallucinogenic, the tequila worm is a trademark for daring drinkers. And yet, there are two common misunderstandings when it comes to tequila worms:
- the worm is actually associated with Mezcal (a sister drink of tequila), not tequila; and
- in any case, the worm concept was a marketing ploy dreamt up in the 1940s to rebrand and enhance excitement about the drink.
Tequila is not produced from worms. Worms play no part in the flavouring or colouring of tequila and if you want to drink tequila like a Mexican, you’ll steer clear of any worm-based products (which have been put on the shelves for clueless tourists).
Tequila quality scale
To recap, here is what tequila looks like on the quality scale from low to high grade.
- Tequila (no statement about it being 100% agave)
- 100% agave tequila (blanco or joven)
- 100% agave tequila reposado
- 100% agave tequila añejo
- 100% agave tequila extra añejo
In addition to all of this, there are obviously different tequila brands that offer different tastes. Whether you prefer one to another will always come down to personal taste, so you have full permission to experiment.
How do Mexicans drink tequila?
Until I tasted good tequila, the idea of sitting and sipping tequila, as Mexican people commonly do, seemed like an absurd activity. Yet the truth is that good tequila is to be savoured, not slugged down at speed.
Here’s how to do it.
Pick a tequila that is 100% agave and at least reposado.
Fill a shot glass in the normal way (the Mexican shot glasses tend to be taller and thinner than the squat, stubby versions in the UK and the USA and are called caballito, meaning little horse).
To drink, simply take a small sip of tequila straight and enjoy.
If you feel the need as a new tequila drinker, you can try your tequila with some lime (called limon in Mexico) and some (finely ground) salt. After every sip or two, dip your wedge of lime into a small amount of salt and suck on it. However, don’t use too much as you will drown out the flavour of the tequila.
Ideally, try to buy the tiny limes that are light green because they are sweeter and juicier than their larger, darker counterparts.
And there you have it: how you really should drink tequila.
What about Tequila shots in Mexico?
The westernized way of drinking tequila where you lick some salt off the back of your hand, swallow an entire shot of tequila in one go, and finish off with a quick suck on a lime wedge does actually originate from Mexico – it is how Mexican people drink very young tequila i.e. not reposado or añejo.
However, this style of tequila drinking in Mexico has a party vibe to it and is more common amongst younger drinkers. As smoother tequilas are more readily available and affordable, this white, rougher tequila seems to be drunk less frequently.
What about tequila hangovers?
The day after my tequila tour I was hangover free and I was absolutely staggered by that fact.
The tequila tasting had been liberal and the drinking period extended, however, I’d (largely) stuck to the tour guide’s tequila tasting rule: never mix tequila with sugar. Long island ice teas (laden with coke), orangey tequila sunrises, sugary margaritas… our westernised tequila consuming ways are intrinsically linked with the one substance that should be avoided to keep a clear head the next day.
If you want to keep the hangover at bay, don’t feed your body sugar and tequila in the same sitting.
All that said, sometimes all you want is a fun tequila cocktail, headache be damned. If you’re in the mood for a party of a long, cool cocktail on a hot day, check out my 8 Tequila Cocktail Recipes To Try At Home.
Visiting Tequila in Mexico
If you want to level up your tequila knowledge, then go and do some tasting in the town of Tequila in Mexico.
Occupying little more than two dusty streets, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the town of tequila retained a sleepy, small-town vibe. Of course, the peace was interrupted each day when a coach load or two rolled a bunch of tourists into town, but Tequila was otherwise absent from the mass tourism that has bulldozed through other parts of Mexico (I’m looking at you: Cabo san Lucas and Cancun).
Taking pride of place and owning much of the main street in tequila is Jose Cuervo..and boy do they have some big plans.
Before leaving the town of tequila I tried to burn the image of the street into my memory because Jose Cuervo has announced its intention to pump around USD$25 million into developing the town of Tequila with the intention of driving international tourism to the town.
Of course, it has to be a good thing that more people visit tequila and taste this drink in its home location, but I fear it will be at the expense of the town’s authenticity.
So, if there were ever a place to visit sooner than later, tequila is it. And why not – because there is no better place to learn about tequila.
Tequila tours in Mexico
For now, tequila tours haven’t hit the stage of mass tourism outside Mexico (but see below). For that reason, I was one of only two non-Mexicans on a 52-seater coach tour. Don’t worry if your Spanish isn’t great – the guide on the bus and the tour guide at the distillery could speak good English. Plus, drinking tequila with 50 Mexicans is the perfect time to learn some new words. Salud!
Use Guadalajara as your base
Guadalajara is a beautiful and lively city north of Mexico City where Mariachi bands still play for the enjoyment of the locals (not just as a tourist attraction), the street food is stomach expanding, the salsa clubs are packed, and the prices are noticeably lower than other parts of Mexico.
Guadalajara is also known as the “gay capital” of Mexico if you’re looking to experience Mexico’s gay scene.
Guadalajara in Jalisco state is a great, affordable base for visiting the town of Tequila.
Guadalajara is around 6 hours (by road) northwest of Mexico City and the town of Tequila is around a further 1 hour (by road) from Guadalajara.
Click here to find flights to Guadalajara using Skyscanner.
The two main choices for a tequila tour are:
- a coach tour (which I took, and which is the cheaper option). I booked locally, which will also be cheaper but if you prefer to book in advance, click here to check prices and book through TripAdvisor (check if the guide will be in English if you don’t speak Spanish); or
- a small group tour – if you want to swerve the large coach groups, take a smaller group tour. You’ll see the same sights (drink the same tequila!) without the crowds.
- the Tequila train is called the Tequila Express. This looks like it would be amazing fun complete with Mariachi bands. Click here to read reviews of the Tequila Express and check prices on TripAdvisor.
Of course, you can drive too, but you’ll need a designated driver.
The coach tour will generally include a visit to a distillery to see the tequila-making process from the harvesting and trimming down of the agave plant to the entire distillation process.
Afterward, you will visit three or four additional distilleries for tastings as well as stop in the sleepy town of tequila where Jose Cuervo has a significant presence.
During the day you will learn about agave and the tequila ages. You will also be introduced to something we simply don’t get in the UK – cream-based tequila blends. For the record, strawberry cream tequila is both real and divine.
Expect the day to be long and get ready for some insanely early tequila tasting (I had my first tequila in hand way before midday).
If you’re looking to explore more of Mexico check out Intrepid Travel. They offer several small group tours through Mexico and you’re guaranteed to get a cultural experience.
Where to stay in Guadalajara
I stayed at Guadalajara Centro Hospedarte Hostel and booked my tour through them at a cost of $400MXN (around £20/$30 including transport and tastings).
On a budget: Hostel Hospedarte Guadalajara Centro – I stayed here and it was fantastically social (think: regular Tequila parties) with good options for booking tours.
Mid-range: The Westin Guadalajara – clean, well-kept, modern rooms with a great location, The Westin offers reliable service for great prices.
Luxury: NH Collection Guadalajara Providencia – located in the financial district of Guadalajara, expect modern rooms in a good location, surrounded by a good choice of restaurants.
Hotels in the town of Tequila: If you’d rather stay in the town of Tequila itself, there is a handful of hotels to choose from.
What’s your relationship like with tequila? Love it? Hate it? Prepared to give it a try the Mexican way?
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