In Defense of Mixtos, The Most Unloved of All Tequilas
Cheap? Yep. But there’s quality and history to be found in this agave spirit.
Tequila generally falls into two categories: those made to be shot, and those made to be savored.
The latter have driven much of tequila’s meteoric growth in the United States over the past two decades. Tequila sales overall have risen 180 percent since 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, while high-end tequila sales increased by 531 percent and super-premium tequilas jumped up 1,042 percent.
And then there are mixtos. This oft-maligned category of tequila tends to fill cheap, big-batch margaritas or arrive via a shot glass before being chased with lime and salt to erase any flavor whatsoever. There’s more to the mixto story, however, and there are even a few bottles that are ideal for cocktails.
“Mixto tequilas definitely have a place in the market, as we can see in their availability within the marketplace,” says Grover Sanschagrin, the cofounder of TasteTequila and Tequila Matchmaker. “Like anything, there are high and low ends of the quality spectrum, and mixtos are no exception.”
Tequila is legally defined as an agave spirit made from at least 51 percent blue Weber agave. Many premium tequilas, including the ones most highly regarded by bartenders and experts, are 100 percent agave. Historically, this was the case for every tequila. The first legal tequila classification in 1949 required all agave, according to Difford’s Guide, but that was chipped down to a required 70 percent agave in 1964, and then the 51 percent it is today in 1970. Every tequila that falls in between 51 percent and 100 percent agave is a mixto.
Distillers can use a variety of types of sugar to fill the remaining 49 percent: molasses, high fructose corn syrup or a lightly processed Mexican cane sugar called piloncillo, to name a few. While distilleries aren’t required to put “mixto” on the bottle, if it isn’t labeled “100 percent agave,” then it’s a mixto.
Adding sugar to the fermentation process makes mixto tequilas cheaper and the overall tequila yield larger, but it can also mask some of the natural agave flavors that define tequila.
“Mixto tequila has never been well regarded (in Mexico),” says Fátima León, who was the 2017 winner of the World Class Mexico bartending competition. “I think that Mexican bartenders defend their spirits and raw materials more every day. The perception from 10 years ago to now is completely different, but communication and openness play a very important role as a Mexican to know the product and love it.”
León adds that mixing can help the flavor, but she always prefers 100 percent agave. She’s far from alone in the preference. Chowhound went with the headline “Mixto Is for Losers” when describing the tequila type, while Wine Enthusiast kept its mixto advice simple in a 2017 story: “Avoid them.” Of the 12 bars, bartenders and tequila experts I reached out to for this story, only three were even open to speaking on mixtos.
But there’s one cocktail from a small bar in Tequila, Mexico, that seems to get an especially notable pass.
La Capilla (which translates to “the chapel”) is a small, nondescript cantina. It’s the oldest in town, and it was named one of the World’s 50 Best Bars from 2011 to 2014. Its claim to fame is the batanga, a cocktail created by the late founder Don Javier Delgado Corona sometime in the 1950s. The cocktail is simple, just like La Capilla. The batanga is essentially a Cuba libre with a salted rim, but with tequila instead of rum. The not-so-secret secret ingredient, as Don Javier has told many who asked, is that he mixes the tequila, lime and Coke with the same knife used to cut the lime. For the tequila, La Capilla uses the house brand: El Tequileño, a mixto tequila made with 71 percent agave and 29 percent piloncillo.
The modern case for mixtos
There’s a wide range when it comes to what is fermented, and then distilled, alongside the agave. Minimally processed piloncillo, for example, has a long history in Mexico, whereas corn syrup and molasses are cheap and get the job done.
“If you’re using high-quality sugars and mature, ripe agave, you’ll get a great tasting mixto,” says Jonny Gray, an agave spirits expert and the co-founder of the Bartenders Benevolent Fund. He adds that a good mixto can taste better than a 100-percent agave tequila that uses underripe agaves, “and it will be priced much lower than a small-batch, traditional, 100-percent agave tequila.”
Mixto tequilas are less reliant on agave. The plant can take a decade to fully grow, and there are cyclical shortages (take 2016 and 2018, for example) that can cause agave prices, and therefore tequila prices, to go up. Added sugars in mixtos increases the yield without being as sensitive to the agave harvest as a 100-percent agave tequila.
At the end of the day, mixtos are just like any other type of spirit. Some are fine, some work in certain circumstances, and some are downright awful.
“A mixto tequila is still a tequila,” Sanschagrin says. He adds that people’s tastes are subjective, so what works for one person may not work for another. “If you like a tequila, mixto or not, then you shouldn’t feel guilty about that.”
Mixto tequilas to try
“I like to look at mixtos versus 100-percent agave tequilas as I do blended versus single malt Scotch,” Gray says. “A mixto tequila should be great to taste or as a shot for sure, but they are fantastic in cocktails like a batanga or a margarita. Their price point is generally lower, and their reliance on the agave market is less, so they are much better suited for volume.”
Some of the most common mixtos you’ll see in the U.S. are José Cuervo Especial and Sauza Silver. They’re often described as “smooth” — a lack of any strong agave flavors that in part comes from the percent of sugar used. These and their ilk can hide behind other ingredients in a drink almost as well as vodka.
But for a mixto with a little more agave flavor, opt for one of the below.
The first mixto that Gray came across that used more than the minimum agave requirement. Olmeca Blanco is 60-percent agave, Gray says, and it “tastes more like agave and less like additives than other large volume mixtos in the market.”
The house tequila at La Capilla and the original choice for the batanga cocktail. El Tequileño has distilled its spirits in old town Tequila since 1959, and recently started to distribute its mixto and 100-percent agave tequilas in the U.S. With 71 percent agave and 29 percent piloncillo, El Tequileño Blanco has a sweetness that doesn’t overpower the agave flavors, Gray says. And while Sanschagrin rarely drinks mixtos, he notes that El Tequileño received high marks from the Tequila Matchmaker Tasting Profile.
If you’re looking for a tequila with a little oak aging, San Matias Reposado is another mixto with high ratings from Tequila Matchmaker. It’s still on the sweeter side and designed for mixing like the blancos above, but the oak aging adds some baking spice notes.
(10/29: Updated with a correct photo of the San Matias)
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