Are you confused by all the tequilas in the liquor store — wondering how much to pay without getting ripped off?

Does color matter? Does a fancy square bottle make a difference? And what about small-print Spanish words like “reposado” and “añejo” on the label?

Unless you’re part of the “upside-down margarita” brigade, happy to drink whatever gets poured into your wide-open, conga-line mouth, you should know that understanding tequila in 2014 is practically akin to understanding fine wine — but that’s actually good news (and there really is no bad news). If you just know a few key facts — many, many fewer than with wine — you’ll be well on your way to avoiding another life-disaffirming hangover from too many shots of “scorpion juice.”

Like the French with Champagne, the Mexicans have established laws stipulating that the name “tequila” can be used only to mean a distilled liquor made in a specific region and from a specific ingredient: the blue agave plant. It can be made only in the state of Jalisco and in specified areas of four other states (Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas). So, just as California can’t make “Champagne,” places with other names cannot make “tequila.”

As for blue agave, it’s one of more than 200 agave species (related to the yuccas you may grow in your yard, but you really don’t want to be distilling those). It’s different from the plant used to make mescal (or Mezcal, mostly made in the state of Oaxaca), which is the maguey plant — a type of agave (but not blue) possibly first distilled by Fernando Cortez’s desperate soldiers, finding themselves parched in the patch of New World they had conquered. When you combine regional specificity with precise ingredient specificity, you realize tequila is a pretty special beverage.

To understand what you’re looking at on the store shelf, first divide all the tequilas into two categories: “mixtos” and pure agave. Discard the former — completely. They may contain as little as 51% distilled agave juice (with sugar-cane juice as filler). If you pour shots of sugar into your body, you’re just asking for trouble.
Then memorize some basic facts about the five remaining varieties of pure-agave tequilas (I promise this won’t hurt a bit, just do it before you start drinking). In order of age, the five are:

“Blanco” or “plata” (white or silver) — clear spirits, Mexico’s answer to white lightning, usually un-aged and bottled immediately after they’re distilled. No surprise that these have the harshest mouth-feel and most distinctive agave flavors.

“Joven” or “oro” (young or gold) — un-aged blanco or plata, blended with darker, aged tequila in the best case, but in the worst they’re mixed with caramel coloring, oak extract or sugar-cane syrup — and you need to know which is which. (Look for “100% agave” on the label to avoid undesirable additives.) The added aged tequila will make these drinks softer than unblended clear tequila.

“Reposado” (rested, from the same root word as “repose”) — aged no less than two months, but no more than one year, in (potentially huge) oak barrels. A reposado will be a mellower drink, with agave flavors muted as the liquid absorbs companion flavors — just like wine does — from the barrels.

“Añejo” (aged or vintage, from the word for “year”) — aged no less than one year, but no more than three, in smaller oak casks. More mellow and woody than reposado, some may be aged in barrels previously used to age whiskey or other spirits, adding even more complexity to the flavor profile.

“Extra Añejo” (extra aged) — a category established in 2006 for tequilas aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. These are the mellowest of all, meant to be drunk neat — as are most añejos — and not used in cocktails.

Some experts argue that an aged tequila isn’t necessarily “better” than an un-aged one; it just depends on what you plan to do with it. For what it’s worth, I tend to agree. My basic rules are to avoid additives and to make mixed drinks with blanco, plata, joven, oro or reposado tequilas — depending on whether you want a friskier or calmer drink. I wouldn’t want to drown an añejo’s flavors in lime juice. But I can’t say that I recommend a particular tequila brand. My main shopping tip is this: If you’re in Mexico, buy your tequila in the grocery store not the Duty Free shop. Seriously, you’ll often get a better selection and always a way-better price.

I can, however, recommend a killer Marguerita (the original spelling) recipe. Mix four parts reposado tequila with two parts Cointreau, the juice of two fresh limes and half an orange, and a tablespoon (or less, or none) of powdered sugar; shake thoroughly with ice and serve in salt-rimmed glasses. This is an old-school cocktail, not a “frozen Margarita” pumped out of what looks like a front-loading washing machine on Bourbon Street. You can play with the proportions, but fresh ingredients are key to a great cocktail. I bet you’ll like it — and still like it the morning after.

And for you fans of Harper Lee, I’ve found two recipes for the Tequila Mockingbird cocktail. The first calls for mixing two parts silver tequila with one part mint liqueur (such as crème de menthe, depending on whether you want green coloration) and the juice of one lime, shaking with ice and serving either straight-up or on the rocks.
Another says to muddle one slice of jalapeno pepper in the bottom of a shaker; add 2 ounces silver tequila, 1.5 ounces watermelon-basil puree (made by blending two cups of watermelon with a few basil leaves), ¾ ounce fresh lime juice and ¾ ounce agave syrup; shake well and serve over rocks. Anyone brave enough to try either one of those concoctions should please write and tell me how it was. I’m sticking with my Margueritas.