Cinco de Mayo is here again, and there’s really only one choice for your celebratory libations: agave spirits. Tequila and mezcal are both quite trendy right now in mixological circles, and for America’s favorite celebration of Mexican culture, they’re a delicious option. (For the record, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s independence day—it commemorates the country’s victory over invading French forces in an 1862 battle and is arguably more widely celebrated north of the border than in its native land.)
Either way, Cinco de Mayo is still a good opportunity to splurge on a high-end tequila or mezcal, but with both spirits’ popularity on the rise, prices have started to skyrocket. With that in mind, I’ve got suggestions for both fancy-pants and cheap-ass drinkers for mezcal and each of tequila’s different age levels. The lower-cost options are not bottom-shelf swill by any means, though: They’re all 100-percent-agave spirits (you should really entirely avoid tequilas and mezcals that aren’t) that offer fantastic value (and make beautiful Margaritas and Palomas).
Cheap-ass: Olmeca Altos Plata ($25)
Olmeca Altos’ production methods are seriously old-school, including roasting the agave in brick ovens and crushing (at least some of) it using 2,000-pound stone tahona wheels, but the brand was also founded in part by a pair of bartenders with the goal of a high-quality spirit priced for cocktail-making. And the brand’s succeeded remarkably, rapidly becoming a favorite of mixologists around the world. The brand’s Plata is remarkably sweet and smooth but with distinctive mineral agave notes and would be a great value even at $30 or $40 a bottle.
Fancy-pants: Código 1530 Rosa ($65)
Most people think of blanco tequila as unaged, but the law says a blanco can spend up to two months in oak. This unique spirit takes advantage of that quirk, spending a month in French oak barrels that previously held cabernet from some of the top wineries in the Napa Valley. That aging gives the spirit a distinctive pink color and a fruity, almost bubblegum sweetness. Código 1530 was previously a private label accessible only to a select group of wealthy Mexican families, but it rolled out across the US earlier this year with a full range of traditional tequilas as well as this unique creation.
Cheap-ass: Corralejo Reposado ($26)
Most tequila comes from the Mexican state of Jalisco, but there are a few other areas allowed to make it, including parts of the neighboring state of Guanajuato, where Corralejo comes from. The soils there yield agave that makes for a spicy, peppery tequila, flavors that are well-complemented by the four months of aging in both American and French oak barrels for Corralejo’s reposado. You’ll find honey and vanilla notes in lovely balance with citrusy and grassy agave flavors.
Fancy-pants: ArteNOM Seleccion de 1414 Reposado ($50)
While most brands turn the same distillate into their blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas, ArteNOM sources each of its different expressions from a different small distillery. Its reposado comes from Destilería El Ranchito in the town of Arandas, Jalisco, which distills tequila exclusively from agave grown on its own 2,000-acre estate. It’s even fermented using a wild yeast extracted from the very same fields! The spirit offers lots of green, vegetal, roasty-toasty flavor that’s best enjoyed with an ice cube or two.
Cheap-ass: Espolón Añejo ($35)
American whiskey lovers might find their way into tequila with this añejo. It takes tequila that already aged 10 months in new American oak barrels and finishes it in heavily charred former Wild Turkey Bourbon barrels for two more months. The spirit offers plenty of the oaky, caramel and butterscotch notes you find in bourbon, backed by a subtly smoky roasted-agave flavor that marks it as distinctively tequila nonetheless.
Fancy-pants: El Tesoro Paradiso ($100)
Aged in former cognac barrels for five years, this is truly a luxury tequila. (Technically, it’s an extra-añejo; just plain añejo tequila must be aged between one and three years.) It’s most definitely for sipping neat or with a little ice, where you’ll be able to tease out all the subtle wood, fruit and herbal notes that make up its complex bouquet. Heavily aged tequilas like this one often lose their essential agave-ness, but Paradiso manages to balance its oak notes and its tequila ones.
Cheap-ass: Del Maguey Vida ($35)
Mezcal is on fire lately, with prices rising and countless new brands coming to the States, but for the best value in the category, you should look to this long-time favorite. Del Maguey was the pioneer for mezcal in the US and has been importing artisanal bottles since way back in 1995. Vida is the brand’s entry-level bottling, created with cocktails in mind, and it’s a perfect entry point for anybody new to the spirit, with a good balance of smokiness, fruitiness and spice.
Fancy-pants: Mezcal Cráneo ($60)
You can find high-end mezcals priced way higher than this one, but Cráneo, which launched in the US late last year, is special because it’s one of a very few certified-organic mezcals in existence. The brand is eco-friendly to the extreme, even using bottles blown by hand from recycled glass and recycled-paper labels printed in soy ink, but that’s not the only reason to try it. Cráneo has a powerful smokiness backed up by strong citrus notes, a bit of sweetness and a silky-smooth body.