Ah, tequila... one of my favorites. Fermented from the sap of the blue agave plant, this spirit is one of the more popular products exported from Mexico. The popularity of the margarita has helped to fuel sales of tequila in the US, and in the last several years the sales of higher quality "premium" tequilas has increased by roughly 28%.
Some of the more popular and affordable brands of tequila (Jose Cuervo is one of the better known brands) are mass produced and are classified as "mixtos," i.e. they are not made from 100% agave. Mixtos must use no less than 51% agave, and they make up the remainder with other (less expensive) sugars. Since the harvesting and extracting of the agave is still done largely by hand, cost is clearly a factor in producing a 100% agave tequila.
I'm not one to turn my nose up at a well-made mass produced tequila; Cuervo Gold (forever memorialized in my heart by Steely Dan) makes a perfectly acceptable margarita, but that's as far as you'd want to take it. For sipping, you really do want to look for a handcrafted tequila, one made from 100% agave, and (this is my personal preference, of course - your mileage may vary) one that's been aged for a bit.
If you've browsed your store shelves, you've noticed that there are at least three popular categories of tequila (in reality, there are five, but these are the three you'll notice most often): blanco (or silver) is white, unaged tequila, bottled immediately after distillation; reposado tequila is aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels; and anejo is aged a minimum of one year but less than three years in small oak barrels. Straight tequila can have a very harsh taste, so if you're feeling adventurous and your budget can stand it (a decent bottle can run you $50 or more), I'd recommend an aged tequila, at least a reposado. On the rocks with a twist of lime is a good way to start your sipping adventure, and the idea here is to sip slowly and savor the taste.
Always willing to put myself out for my readers' benefit, I took some tequila for a test drive this week. Artá is a new tequila handcrafted in Mexico from 100% blue agave. Using agave grown on a single estate, the company is using sustainable production methods all the way up to the attractive packaging; the striking triangular bottles are made from recycled glass, and they're stoppered with tops made of recycled metal and sustainably grown cork. With an eye toward social responsibility, the company is also putting one percent of its profits back into the Mexican and American communities in which its employees live and work.
Artá produces three kinds of tequila: silver, reposado, and anejo. First I tried the reposado straight up. I found this to be fairly smooth and warm-tasting, like a wood-aged spirit should be. Arta's website notes that the reposado has a finish of honey and vanilla, and those are definitely detectable on the tongue as an after-taste.
Next I tried it in a very basic margarita: tequila, Grand Marnier, and fresh lime juice in a 2:1:1 ratio. I found that I needed to add the barest splash of simple syrup to mellow this out a bit, and once I did that I had myself a very enjoyable margarita. Margarita aficionados will argue passionately about what goes into one: some people will insist on a triple sec in place of the Grand Marnier (it's definitely a lighter choice), some people add sweetener, some people insist on using a silver tequila, some people prefer a sweetened lime juice like Rose's to the freshly squeezed stuff, and the ratio of the three primary ingredients is also hotly contested -- and that's just for the standard drink! If you have a recipe you like, by all means stick to it; otherwise, it's fun to experiment with the different parameters (varying one ingredient at a time so you'll know what works and what doesn't, and I don't recommend you try them all in the same evening) until you hit on the one you like the best.
I think my next experience with the Artá will be with a somewhat simpler drink so as to allow the tequila to shine more fully; they have a recipe on their website for something called a Baja Bliss, which is essentially a tequila Old Fashioned. The recipe calls for the anejo, but I think the reposado will do nicely.
And if you're having a leisurely Sunday brunch, well, there's always the Tequila Sunrise...