What is it about tequila that gives it a bad reputation? Quaffed almost entirely as a shot, tequila is treated as if it destroys inhibition and sensibility. Parties don’t begin until the tequila is poured. It’s reputation scares the novice drinker. This is the hard stuff—the drink to make one drunk.
This really isn’t fair. Tequila has subtleties that pounding shots do not afford. The liquor made from blue agave is smoky and mysterious—nothing else tastes like it. Its herbal tang stays on the tongue, and, depending on its age and casking, may have woody esters that blend and contrast with sweet, almost thick, flavors of the tequila itself.
Young tequila, white or silver, is brash, best in the inevitable but sublime Margarita. It just works with lime—its acid cutting the almost medicinal taste of the immature tequila.
Rested tequila, reposado, begins to mellow with barrel aging. The soft golden color of reposado is natural, and the flavor is a bit softer too. We’re beginning to get into tequila that can be sipped and not slammed.
Then there is aged, or añejo, tequila. The price alone would prevent most of us from shooting these down in one-ounce increments. Aged at least two years, añejo tequilas get sweet caramel overtones from the intoxicating mix of the esters in the barrel and the agave distillation.
And then there’s gold.
What a letdown that the vast majority of tequila consumed is gold. While I consider Patrón over-priced and underwhelming, I give the company credit for not introducing a Patrón Gold, no matter how tempting it may be. Gold tequila is food coloring, not aging, and though the standard bearer, José Cuervo, claims to age some of the tequila in its blend that becomes Especial Gold, that aging isn’t what imparts color. In truth, Especial Gold isn’t 100% blue agave tequila. It’s a blend or mixto, in this case being mixed with distilled sugar water. And yet it’s popularity is unmatched.
Why? It’s inexpensive and plentiful for a top-shelf liquor. As a shot, it burns in the way one may expect, but doesn’t send alcoholic fumes into the sinuses. It’s flat, no complexity. It’s a bit sweet, a bit funky, lending itself to its outlaw reputation. It’s naughty to shoot gold tequila. “This party is fun! Isn’t there a worm in there? I should stop drinking. Okay, just one more.”
(There is no worm in tequila. Cheap Mescals may have it in there, but it’s only a stunt for the gringos.)
José Cuervo makes a silver Especial, also inexpensive, also a mixto, that doesn’t have food coloring, a better buying choice. But there are other inexpensive silver tequilas that are indeed 100% blue agave. In fact, Cuervo gives the game away by also offering its own silver and reposado 100% blue agave tequilas. These have a complexity that Especial lacks, but if the Margarita one pours comes from a mix, the tequila quality really makes no difference.
Cuervo Especial isn’t a bad tequila—it’s just mediocre. Some may like the color of the amber Gold, but there’s nothing behind it to earn its reputation. It’ll remain popular because the brand is quintessential, and maybe it’ll act as a starting point in choosing different, complex and wonderful tequilas. But that’s not likely as long as the Cuervo Gold is treated as the gateway to bad decisions.