Everyone has a tequila story. Perhaps yours involves illegal behavior, nudity or worse. But all of our tequila stories have one thing in common: the aftermath. You, curled up in the fetal position, unable to handle the mere suggestion of it for days, weeks, years to come.
But tequila has done a great deal of growing up over the past couple of decades, shedding its party persona for a more dignified air, one that evokes craft, care, centuries of tradition and—in some cases—luxury.
Much of this is due to the rapid growth of tequila consumption in the U.S., the largest market for the agave spirit in the world. Pair this with current tastes for aged, rare, premium products and suddenly, distillers have a great deal of monetary motivation to create products that look and taste different—as well as products that can get away with a significantly higher price tag.
This move is embodied in the rise of extra añejo tequilas—tequilas that have been aged for at least three years in oak barrels. The classification was instituted in 2006, and over the past couple of years, a number of brands have come out with “premium, limited” versions that have been aged for three, five, even 10-plus years, including Patrón’s Extra Añejo 7 Años, Tequila Tapatio’s Exelencia, Tequila Ocho’s San Agustin, Don Julio’s Real and Dulce Vida’s Extra Añejo, to name just a few. Price tags range from $45 all the way up to $2,700, in the case of 1800’s Coleccion.
In the face of the massive growth of this new category of tequila products, a nagging question presents itself: Does this kind of aging make sense for tequila, whose hallmark quality is the pure expression of fermented blue agave? And how much of it is motivated by a desire to appeal to the whiskey-obsessed American market?
The extra añejo designation specifies a minimum aging requirement of three years and a maximum capacity of 600 liters for the oak barrels used for aging. But where that oak comes from, and the amount of care put into the process, is entirely up to the distiller. Consequently, there are a wide range of approaches to this relatively new category, with tequilas aged in anything from bourbon barrels to wine barrels to new French oak. And for serious agave drinkers, these distinctions can make a very big difference.
True agave aficionados hold firm that blanco is the truest way to drink tequila, from a cultural standpoint and in terms of taste. “I think that most agave purists feel that barrel aging in general is American and European tastes pushing themselves onto Mexican traditions,” says Heugel, who was quick to add that this “push” does not mean that extra añejos can’t be good, or even great.
“If you’re not careful, I don’t think that agave pairs very well with barrel-aging,” says Bobby Heugel, president of the Clumsy Butcher and co-owner and bartender of The Pastry War, an agave-centric bar in Houston. “You get these very herbal, very green flavors that come out of agave and the wood flavors don’t necessarily go well with that.”
Tomas Estes, Mexico’s tequila ambassador to Europe and a partner in Tequila Ocho (along with Master Distiller Carlos Camareno, who is also behind beloved brand Tequila Tapatio), emphasizes the importance of prioritizing the agave above all in the aging process.
“Tequila is a very delicate product; it’s quite vulnerable to being in a barrel,” he says. Estes approaches this by aging Tequila Ocho’s San Agustin tequila in American whiskey barrels (white oak, of course) that have been “fatigued”—barrels that are the most used up, and ultimately neutral, they can find.
Dulce Vida has taken a similarly careful approach to its extra añejo, subjecting it to a slower aging process in wine barrels and starting with a 100-proof blanco tequila. “I think it’s really a balance — the wood adds a lot,” says Dulce Vida’s president, Richard Sorenson. “But we start with a base product that is very rich in agave flavor.”
These methods are an attempt to assuage the fear that most tequila purists express in the face of the barrel-aged trend, that aging tequila in wood for any period of time masks the natural aging process inherent in all agave spirits: the age of the agave plant itself, which takes at least seven years to mature. It’s the plant, and the plant alone, on which tequila tradition is firmly based. “My belief is that with tequila, the way to honor the plant, the agave, is to drink it as purely and naturally as possible, with nothing covering it up,” Estes says.
Of course, thoughtfully aged tequila can take on interesting and valuable new flavor dimensions — the barrel adding a roundness and richness that, if executed with a deft hand, can mellow the spicy herbaceousness of the agave. But true agave aficionados hold firm that blanco is the truest way to drink tequila, from a cultural standpoint and in terms of taste.
“I think that most agave purists feel that barrel aging in general is American and European tastes pushing themselves onto Mexican traditions,” says Heugel, who was quick to add that this “push” does not mean that extra añejos can’t be good, or even great.
There is a precedent for aged tequila in the form of reposado and añejo, and some distillers were aging their tequilas for three years or longer before the extra añejo category was created (most notably Carlos Camarena). But it’s true that many of these practices, and their great presence in the market, are driven by the desire to appeal to American tastes.
“Look at when tequila started becoming more popular in the United States in the 1980s and ’90s,” Heugel says. “Reposado was the leading seller, not blanco. Distillers began to push barrel aging to be relevant in the United States; extra añejo is a continuation of that process.”
What’s more, it’s a continuation of tequila’s desire to be viewed as a “premium” product, rather than shot-fodder. “Think back 25 years ago how absurd it would be to think of enjoying a fine aged tequila just as you would a scotch or cognac,” says Greg Cohen, VP of communications of Patron Spirits. “No other spirits category has evolved this quickly, changing its image and perception so dramatically.”
The evolution has been good for business, but it may come at a cost to tradition. For the less-informed drinker, there’s no reason to think that a bourbon barrel-aged extra añejo is a lesser expression of the spirit than a blanco. Based on the price tag, they might think the opposite. Which is exactly what those distillers are hoping for.
While tequila imports to the U.S. have grown at a rapid speed (up 83 percent from 2002 to 2013), it’s still chasing down whiskey, the American darling. To cut into that market, tequila producers are blatantly using the language of high-end whiskey marketing.
Cohen and Sorenson are both quick to note that their brands had tequila in barrels before bourbon was the booze du jour, and that the release of their extra añejos in this barrel-obsessed time was a matter of good luck and great timing. But Estes is a little more blunt about his approach. While Ocho’s extra añejo was, in part, created to, “show the market what a blanco would do if aged for three years,” he acknowledges that it was absolutely a commercial move as well.
“We went so far as to put it into a wooden box,” he says, chuckling. “We definitely wanted to appeal to those who want this rare luxury product.” For him, it also creates an opportunity to shine a light on Ocho’s other products — specifically, the blanco. “It is the product that I’m most proud of, and the product that I drink.”
Because extra añejo is a relatively new category, the spirit of experimentation is strong. But there’s concern that the trend may result in tequilas that could become indistinguishable from any other white spirit that’s aged for a long period of time in wood. And for the purists, barrel-aging in general will always sort of miss the point.
“Blanco is aged, since it’s the aging of the agave plant really matters,” says Heugel. “The maturity of the plant and of its growth comes through in the flavor of the tequila. That taste is important.”