Tequila is one of those spirits that has a distinct high and low end. When it's good, it's transcendent. When it's bad... yeesh, it can be pretty harsh. There's a fine line between subtle vegetal agave toastiness and an alcohol burn that'll kick up a gag reflex. A great bottle of tequila will engage your palate while getting you lit. A bad one will toss you in a gutter and leave you for dead.
The great thing about good tequila is that it doesn't have to cost a small fortune. You don't need to travel too far up the shelf at the liquor store to find a serviceable bottle that works as both a tasty shooter and a solid cocktail base. There's a nice range to choose from clocking in at $20 per bottle - each sure to hit every marker of smooth drinkability.
The ten bottles below show a range of relatively cheap bottles of tequila that hit that perfect Paloma or marg-mixer and "party all night"-shooter balance. We've mostly erred towards blanco (or plata) tequilas here to keep costs down. Generally speaking, if you dig the blanco expression, you'll really love that label's Reposado and Añejo riffs.
Use this list as a starting point from which to build your tequila shelf.
Avg. Price: $29.99
Story: Located in Corralejo, Pénjamo, Guanajuato, Hacienda Corralejo is the home of Tequila Corralejo, one of the most awarded tequilas in the world. The distillery makes a number of tequilas, including blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo. Referred to as "Mexico's best tequila for the world," Corralejo's tequilas are designed to be mixed into your favorite cocktails or sipped neat, depending on your taste
Tasting Notes: This highly prized (but not highly priced) tequila was aged for four months in three different barrels, including French oak, American oak, and Encino oak. The result is a tequila heavily influenced by the various woods - creating a very smooth, balanced tequila with hints of vegetal agave, pine, and vanilla. –Chris Osburn
OLMECA ALTOS PLATA
Avg. Price: $22.99
Story: Olmeca's Altos Tequila is a masterclass in what a great tequila can be. The blue agave is grown high in the Jalisco highlands using organic and sustainable farming. Classic methods of harvesting, processing, and roasting are employed. Wild yeasts ferment agave sugars. Double distillation refines the spirit. The Plata expression doesn't hit the barrels and kind of doesn't need to.
Tasting Notes: This tequila is pure roasted agave brilliance in every sip. A little bit of black pepper comes in next with a hint of pickle brine and bright citrus. There's a nice grassy nature to the taste that leads to lime freshly plucked from a tree. Finally, there's a fruity and spicy nature on the end that ties it all together into one great sip of tequila. –Zach Johnston
Avg. Price: $24.99
Story: You might be wondering about the unique, spooky, skeleton riding a rooster on the bottle. Espolon means "spur" in Spanish. It's a reference to the rooster, a popular Mexican symbol. Like a few other distillers in the world (including Copper & King's), Espolon blasts rock music while its agave is fermenting. Who knows if this moves the needle, but this distillery, founded in 1998, has won numerous awards over the past two decades.
Tasting Notes: This filtered blanco tequila is surprisingly smooth and light. It's as well-rounded as a tequila that spent months in a barrel maturing, even though it didn't. It's sweet, subtly vegetal, with hints of spice and citrus. It's as at home in a Margarita as it is in the form of an easy to drink shot. –CO
TRES AGAVES BLANCO
Avg. Price: $24.99
Story: Tres Agaves is a newer tequila in the grand scheme of things. The label started up in 2010 and has been making great middle-of-the-road tequila consistently. The distillery harvests blue agave and roasts in stainless steel ovens before fermentation and double distillation. It's as modern as Altos is traditional.
Tasting Notes: There's a clear sense of blue agave up front with a slight nose of alcohol. It's still not as aggressive as, say, Cuervo. A slight lemon zest note comes into play with a light edge of spicy pepper leading to a slight alcohol burn with more agave on the end. This is a very straightforward sip of tequila that hits classic notes without overwhelming anything. –ZJ
Avg. Price: $19.99
Story: Made from hand-harvested 100% blue agave, Camarena's tequilas are born in the Arandas Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico. One of the most exciting aspects of this brand is the melding of old and new. The distillation process contains the use of traditional ovens to cook the agave, but also employs contemporary techniques.
Tasting Notes: This smooth, award-winning tequila is perfect for a Paloma (our drink of the summer) or a tequila sunrise. But, with flavors of citrus, vegetal smoked agave, and subtle pepper, it's just at home as a sipper on a cool, summer night by the fire surrounded by friends and family. –CO
EL JIMADOR REPOSADO
Avg. Price: $19.99
Story: Casa Herradura's El Jimador takes its time when making tequila. The blue agave is roasted in classical clay ovens, twice distilled, and then mellowed in American bourbon barrels for two months. That aging adds a nice edge to the tequila that helps elevate this one to the perfect place between easy shooter and cocktail base. Plus, this is a very affordable aged tequila at only 20 bucks a bottle.
Tasting Notes: Interestingly, you get a sense of baked cherries up front alongside the roasted agave and hints of oaky vanilla. More fruit comes into play leaning from cherries to fresh strawberries along with a nice dose of cinnamon and oak. The end is an alcohol finish with a white pepper base and grassy agave flourish. –ZJ
Avg. Price: $26.48
Story: If you poll bartenders on their favorite tequilas for mixing, you'll hear the word "Tapatio" a lot. That's because this brand is the perfect base for cocktails (this is especially true for its blanco expression). This tequila is double distilled at bottle strength in order to keep the natural, vegetal flavors. 'Tapatio' is a Mexican term used to describe a person who lives in Guadalajara. You'll feel like a true local when you sip on this tequila (at the very least you'll feel as cool as a bartender).
Tasting Notes: Rested for two months in stainless steel tanks, Tapatio Blanco is fairly high in ABV at 80 proof. But that hit of alcohol doesn't translate negatively in the flavor department. It's well-balanced with a first sip full of pepper and spice before ending with the vegetal sweetness of the roasted agave. –CO
CAZADORES TEQUILA BLANCO
Avg. Price: $22.99
Story: Cazadores harvests the best blue agave, roasts it, and then crushes it. Pretty standard practice when you're talking tequila. Where Cazadores veers is in the fermentation process - where they play classical music around the clock while the yeasts do their thing. Does it make a difference? You can taste it yourself and make that decision.
Tasting Notes: This one starts out with heavy notes of roast agave and lemon rinds then it ascends into almost oily notes of fresh herbs like sage, thyme, and rosemary. Then you're hit with black pepper punches, brine, and bright citrus notes of grapefruit and lemon. Interestingly, this one ends on notes of freshly mowed lawns and warm watermelon rinds. –ZJ
Avg. Price: $18.99
Story: Like Camarena, Bribon prides itself on combing old and new techniques. Blue agave is harvested by jimadores before being cooked for 18 hours at low temperatures. After shredding and juicing, the liquid is fermented before being distilled twice - in both pot stills and column stills.
Tasting Notes: This tequila is exactly as it seems. It's completely clear, but surprisingly nuanced with terroir playing a major role in the flavor. It has the agave vegetal flavors tequila drinkers have grown to expect, but also contains notes of pepper, citrus, and a subtle spicy finish. –CO
Avg. Price: $38.99
Story: Casamigos spares no expense in creating a great tequila. Their Blanco distillate goes through traditional processes and ends up in stainless steel tanks for two months to add a little extra something to the mix. This extra layer of mellow aging - without adding wood color and flavors - works wonders in making this a very easy drinking tequila, even if it is a little on the spendier side.
Tasting Notes: Mint, agave, and echoes of vanilla open up this sip. There are bitter notes that tie back to a vegetal state and a slight chewiness. The taste is so damn smooth will remaining agave rich. It ends with a breath of fresh air and a note of spiciness. –ZJ