The number of blanco tequilas on the market can be head-spinning. Though añejos and reposados tend to command a hefty price tag, premium blancos are now catching up in prestige, and it can be hard to know what you’re in for when you pick up a new bottle from the shelf. But we did the heavy lifting by tasting through hundreds of tequilas this past calendar year, and after all the dust settled, there was one expression that we felt was deserving of the top spot: Primo 1861 Blanco.

Clocking in at 43 percent ABV and hailing from Los Altos de Jalisco, Primo 1861 Blanco is more than just a phenomenal tequila — it’s an exemplary ode to rustic distillation techniques and family roots that trace all the way back to the 1700s.

The Camarena family co-founded the town of Arandas in Jalisco in 1761, and in 1819, they became the first family to plant Blue Weber agave in the area. Roughly 40 years later, tequila maker Pedro Camarena Ramírez was born, and he went on to found the first tequila distillery ever in Arandas. The distillery tragically burned down during the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s. The only remnant left of the distillery is the tahona stone that now stands at the nearby El Pandillo Distillery, where Primo 1861 is produced today.

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Since then, generations of Camarenas have helped shape tequila as we know it. In the late 1930s, Pedro Camarena III co-founded El Gallito distillery, which now serves as the production facility for Cazadores. And in 1937, Don Felipe Camarena founded La Alteña and its flagship brand Tapatio. His grandson, Carlos, is currently the master distiller at La Alteña, which now also produces El Tesoro and Tequila Ocho.

Why Primo 1861 Blanco Is VinePair’s Best Tequila of the Year (2023)
Credit: Gabrielle Johnson

Fast-forward to 2012 when Carlos’s older brother, Felipe Camarena, built El Pandillo Distillery in Jalisco’s Jesús María. There, Felipe oversees production of tequila brands G4, Volans, and Terralta. A few years after El Pandillo’s founding, Felipe’s nephew Pedro Camarena VI developed a passion for distillation and got in on the family business in his late 20s. The uncle-and-nephew duo soon hatched the idea to create a new brand as an ode to the family’s historic link to the tequila industry. In 2022, Primo 1861 was born: “Primo” nods to the original tequila distillery in Arandas, and 1861 reflects the birth year of Pedro Camarena Ramírez.

Every tequila made at El Pandillo employs a carefully selected combination of its three water sources — rain, spring, and deep well — with Primo 1861’s blanco the only one produced with 100 percent spring water. It’s made using traditional methods with nothing more than agave, water, and wild yeast. The agave is grown in the red soil of Los Altos, which imparts minerality and a sense of terroir in the final product. After harvest, the agave is cooked in stone ovens and then passed through a machine known at El Pandillo as “Igor,” which grinds the cooked agave piñas. The agave fibers are then laid out on wood and soaked with spring water before “Frankenstein” — an 8-ton mechanical tahona designed by Felipe — crushes them to extract the agave’s sugars. Finally, the liquid is naturally fermented in both wooden and stainless-steel tanks, then twice-distilled in copper pots.

The resulting blanco bursts with intense aromatics of tropical fruit, pepper, and vegetal agave. Its personality shines even brighter on the palate, as sweet, herbal notes emerge from a luscious, weighty mouthfeel. We detect peppermint, earthy minerality, and a distinct taste of cinnamon on the finish, with no burn or harsh flavors to dull them. Additional choices make it stand out from the pack, including its deliberately smooth, 43-percent ABV and the bottle’s widened lip, which makes controlled pouring a breeze.

At $70, Primo 1861 Blanco is definitely on the higher end of the spectrum for a blanco, but we feel that the tequila’s expressive character and clean, nuanced flavor more than justifies its price point. And though many drinkers think of tequila as belonging in cocktails, we recommend sipping this spirit neat to fully appreciate everything it has to offer.

The sheer number of stunning Camarena-owned tequila brands is impressive in its own right, but Primo 1861 takes the family legacy to the next level. It’s not only a testament to the family’s virtuosity in distillation, but a celebration of the entire Camarena lineage and everything they’ve accomplished up to this point. So this year, we’re raising a glass to Primo 1861, the Camarenas, and a new chapter in modern tequila distillation. This is one blanco you won’t want to miss.