When it comes to tequila, the basic choice is simple: 100% agave, or not 100% agave. Of course, this is like saying that when it comes to music, there’s Mozart or there’s a guy named Steve-O playing the kazoo version of Eine kleine Nachtmusik alone in a basement in Cleveland, but whatever. You get the point: One is the real thing.
So let’s ignore the mixto category, which only requires tequila to be 51% agave (the rest is typically a neutral spirit made from sugar cane) and concentrate on those labeled 100% de agave or 100% puro de agave.
The agave plant is what gives tequila its character: a kind of spicy vegetal note that’s hard to describe but is extremely distinctive; sometimes it suggests celery, sometimes pepper, sometimes earth, sometimes fresh-cut herbs and often all of the above. Regardless, it’s an addictive flavor and aroma, once you get to know it, and as far as I’m concerned, the best way to do that is to try a good blanco (also labeled silver, plata, white or platinum). The aged tequilas labeled reposado or añejo can be terrific as well, but the oak character from the barrels they rest in will, to some degree, cloak the pure expression of agave.
Top-quality blanco tequilas are equally good for sipping or mixing. (General rule of thumb for cocktails: Look at the bottle in your hand. Can you imagine drinking it straight, or does the idea make you shudder? If the latter, don’t use it for cocktails either.) For sipping, serve good quality blancos neat, the way you would a single-malt scotch, for instance – cool temperature, no ice (and no salt or lime). Even better, serve the tequila alongside a sangrita, a classic accompaniment that was originally a blend of pomegranate juice, orange juice, lime juice, chile pepper and sometimes salt and chopped onion. These days, tomato juice usually takes the place of the pomegranate.