Do you want to make inexpensive margaritas at home but don’t want to drop over $25 per bottle just on tequila? Your friends are probably extremely nice but you shouldn’t have to take out a loan so they can guzzle down frozen margaritas all night at your house. There are many affordable options that you can choose from and still make delicious margaritas that everyone will enjoy.
Sure you can go cheaper than what we’ve listed but the quality tends to drop off significantly and the likelihood of terrible hangovers increase. For this list we included only tequilas that are 100% blue agave so that means no mixto’s which typically contain around 51% blue agave and the rest is made up of sugars. We wanted to clarify this in case you are asking yourself why we left off your go-to one gallon plastic jug of $10 tequila.
Best cheap tequilas for margaritas
Olmeca Altos Blanco
$23 – 750ml
Olmeca Altos is medium bodied tequila with slight sweetness and spicy finish.
We interviewed Scott Willis with Tequila 512 about their lineup, building a brand and challenges faced when launching his tequila line.
Do you want to tell us a little bit about the brand and how it got started?
Scott Willis: Yeah, so I’ve been in Austin about 20 years. Came here to be in the music business actually. Twists and turns led me to a real job, some sales positions, technology companies in town. Then, about 13 years ago, read an article about a guy named Tito, named Tito Beverages, who started a vodka company you might have heard of. For those who don’t drink tequila, he’s a very big vodka brand on the market. 13 years ago, read the article, got inspired and said, “Okay, maybe this is what I need to be doing. Music didn’t pan out. I didn’t come to Austin to do something in technology field. I want to do something fun, interesting, exciting. I’ve really just dove head first in and started learning about the spirits’ industry. I sat down and decided, “Okay, if I’m going to do this, it needs to be something I drink and enjoy.” Tequila was it. It was what I drank the most of. But frankly, at the time, didn’t know a lot about it, other than I liked to enjoy it. I went down that road of learning the industry, federal level, state level, production methods, types of tequilas, really zeroed in on the type that I like from a certain area that I liked. Then, found a guy online that was willing to drive me around Tequila. I flew to Guadalajara 13 years ago, or about 12 now actually, and he drove me around Guadalajara. I had one question for every distillery that I met with in tequila, which was, “Can you make my own flavor profile? I don’t want to put your juice in my bottle.” We found a distillery that was willing to do that at the time, called La Cofradia. Worked with Luis, the master distiller, met the family, got to know the family really well.
We created what would become Tequila 512. I had no name, no money, no idea how to start the business back then but ended up coming back with about three liters of samples, tasting everybody that I knew on it. Everybody seemed to love it. I said, “Okay, this could be a real thing.” I spent six and a half years researching the industry, getting permitted, learning how to sell the stuff, learning how to be in the spirits’ business. I had no background in the industry at all. Then, six and a half years ago, my first cases arrived in Austin, and just started really selling out of my truck. I was driving around with a case of tequila at a time, knocking on doors saying, “Hey, I’ve got a tequila company, would you like to try it?” It was one store, two stores, three stores, five, 10, 20. Continued to grow. Got little over a hundred stores and I thought I’d finally made it. Then in 2015, we won the world’s greatest competition for best vodka or tequila.
Can you tell us about your blanco?
Scott Willis: This Blanco is triple distilled. As you guys are probably aware, it’s a central lowlands tequila. Ours tends to be a bit sweeter than most central lowlands tequilas. I believe a lot of that has to do with the fact that the location of the distillery is in a mango grove, which is very unique to that area. Our water outside is extremely unique to that area. It’s only found right there at the distillery. Volcanic spring water that we harvest right there on site. Triple distilled, 100% agave. We use traditional stone ovens. We use big stone ovens for steaming. They’re 25-ton ovens. Naturally cooled down in the ovens. Open fermentation tanks. Again, kind of ties in to the mango grove. We don’t say the mangoes affect the flavor, but we also say, “Look, it’s open fermentation in a mango grove with four types of mango trees that are flowering and fruiting. It cannot affect the flavor profile of the tequila in some way. Once it cools down, open fermentation tanks and another unique thing for us, we take the yeast that forms in the oven. We have a natural forming yeast that forms in our oven. It’s after they cool down. Natural yeast, ferment them in the fermenters, obviously. We use triple distillation. We use stainless steel pot stills that are copper lined. Then, obviously, the triple distilled. That’s unique to us as well. We use a 24-hour filtration, and we have an oxygenation process. Which, when we were doing the oxygenation process 13 years ago when I found Luis and La Cofradia, there weren’t a lot of brands doing it. There’s a few more doing it now but that creates a fantastic mouth feel and really makes the overall flavor of the tequila a lot smoother.
I heard interesting story about when you were running the first run of your bottles. The tequila plant had some issues? Maybe an explosion?
Scott Willis: Oh wow, you did your research man. Yeah, my old bottle, my old packaging. Same juice in the bottle, but I had my old packaging. Actually, it was the same shape of the bottle, same glass, but we had different decoration on it. It was an agave plant, a wild maguey, with the Texas capital behind it. We were doing that very first run of decorating, and I get a phone call, and we’ve been waiting for months and finally get it, thinking we’re getting it done. They said, “Yeah, the plant that decorates our bottles has exploded.” We say, “So exploded, like blew up?” They said, “Yeah, and we think somebody blew it up. Also it’s the only plant that can do your decoration.” Needless to say, it was a bit stressful. We spent about three to four more months working with my bottle manufacturer at the time to retrofit some of their decoration plant in Toluca to be able to do my bottles. Wasn’t as good of quality, but we did get our first batch of a thousand cases down to Austin. I was off and running at that point. Quality wasn’t there. I’ve got a couple bottles here that are … I show people when they come in, and they’re like, “Yeah, put that away.”
When you’re in a situation, lets say you’re at a bar, and there is no Tequila 512 available, what are you deciding to drink?
Scott Willis: My current go to, honestly, is Don Julio. I think Don Julio makes some good stuff. I think it’s a good go to. It’s safe. I don’t want to try much new unless the bartender’s really pushing it. If mine’s not available and I ask what kind of good tequilas you have, if it’s the standard run of the Patrons and the cheaper Espolons and all of those, I’ll say just give me some Don Julio and I’ll drink that. Yeah, and it’s easy to get. It’s always kind of good. It’s a standard go to. Don Julio 1942, if I want to spend a little bit of money. Clase Azul makes some fantastic stuff on their higher end stuff. There’s some really good high end stuff. I tend to, whether out of design or just because I think it’s good, is I’ll lean people more towards the expensive stuff if they don’t have mine available, because I think a lot of the stuff that’s in my price point’s just really not that good, frankly.
We visited Jalisco, Mexico and had the pleasure to speak with Guillermo Sauza, founder of Fortaleza Tequila. We discussed the family history and traditional processes that Fortaleza still uses today.
Can you tell us about the history of Fortaleza?
Guillermo Sauza: This land belonged to my grandfather and we used to make the Sauza brand. That was started by my what we call tata abuelo, great-great grandfather. And he started in the 1870’s. But unfortunately, my grandfather decided to sell it in 1976 when I was 20 years old. But we were fortunate enough to keep this property and in the year 2000, we started repairing the old distillery and in 2005, finally we brought out our product, stone-crushed agave, small batch, copper pot stills and we brought it out under the brand name Los Abuelos or the grandfathers we like to use it. Literal translation means the grandparents, but we like to use it as the grandfathers. We did run into some trademark issues so we use Fortaleza, which is fortitude. It’s the name my grandfather gave this distillery. And we use that name in the world and we use Los Abuelos still here in Mexico, but it’s the same tequila. So it’s just both brand names we’re using so that we don’t get locked out of using Los Abuelos someday by this company.
Is the trademark issue related to the United States only?
Guillermo Sauza: Yes. It was related to the United States only. It’s a rum company that has a rum brand called Abuelo. It was too close being in the same category. And we lost in The States, but because we had first sale here … They beat us first sale in the United States, I don’t know maybe six months or something they beat us in a territory called Virgin Islands, U.S. American Virgin Islands. But that counted for a sale. But we beat them to sale here in Mexico, so they couldn’t prevent us from continuing to use it. Trademark battles are not fun.
You have Anejo, Reposado, blanco, and then also a still strength.
Guillermo Sauza: Blanco is the authentic tequila. Typically, a company will make a blanco and they’ll put it to either 40% [ABV] or 80 proof. Sometimes we’ve seen a lot of blancos now 37 here in Mexico. We don’t make anything less than 40 [%]. So everything is either 80 proof or above that. But I always start with the blanco at 40%. When we got started, we were looking at doing it with roller mills, but we had the tahona, so we started with the tauna back in 2002. And when we tasted this, we changed our business plan and said let’s just make all tahona made and let’s be a niche market player, which we’ve become. And you can taste the elements of the agave in there.
Does it always go into a steel tank?
Guillermo Sauza: Yeah. We’re going to always stainless steel. So I’ll tell you a little bit about the process. We bring in our agave and the agave is cooked. A couple ways to cook. You can cook in a brick oven. You can cook in an autoclave, which is a pressure vessel which cooks faster. Or you can run it through a diffuser which strips it raw and then they actually cook the juice in a stainless steel tank that has coils in it. That’s, of course, the fastest way. We use the traditional way, the brick oven.
How long in the brick oven?
Guillermo Sauza: More than 30 hours. And it’s a thermodynamic conversion of the fructans to dextrose sugar. It’s not sucrose sugar. So completely different than rum, completely different than any other sugar molecules. So it’s a dextrose molecule of sugar. And then from there, pardon me, we’re able to crush. We use the tahona to crush and that allows to get the pulp off the fiber. The crushing time is about five hours, six hours. Then we wash to get the pulp off the fiber and then we’re able to pump, what we call must up to wood fermentation vats for fermentation. It’s three and a half days fermentation and then to distillation and then you’re going to get your white tequila. Stays in stainless steel until we’re ready to bottle.
What kind of barrels do you use?
Guillermo Sauza: We use any kind of bourbon barrel or whiskey barrel from The States and we chip them out and re-burn them. We use, I think we have them from Beam Global. We have them from Sazerac. We have them from all of the main whiskey companies. And we can reburn them and then we can use them. And we can use them multiple times and we can burn them multiple times. But after the third burn, after the third time you scrape them down and burn, they start to leak a lot. So that’s kind of the end of the history for that barrel at that point. But the barrel brings in some flavors because you’re toasting the cellulose of the wood. The wood is cellulose and so you’re converting those into sugar. So you’re starting to get some sweetness from that and the coloring comes from that.
Do you ship everywhere, the 50 states?
Guillermo Sauza: No we don’t. We’re too small to do that. We’re in about 35 states and we’re in 20 countries. So we’re in Hong Kong, Australia. It’s not giant sales in those countries, but you know, it’s 500 cases here, 200 cases there. So it’s nice just to be able to go into Italy and you can find our product, in Venice you can find our product. And you won’t find this in the chain hotels, either. You’re going to find this in where you have those authentic bartenders that give a damn. They give a damn what they’ve got on the shelf. We’re in the 35 big states, so we’re covering about 60% of the population in the United States. I think 70%. We might not be in a state, say Ohio yet. It’s what they call a control state where the state decides what they’re going to buy and what the public can buy. It’s still antiquated and so we’re not in a state like that yet. I know we’re not in Michigan, either, because Michigan is a control state, too.
This interview was originally aired on “The Tequila Tester” Listen to or watch the entire show below.