When it comes to liquor, we generally assume that older is better. The longer it sits in oak casks, or even in the bottle, the more it can mature into something deeper and more interesting, just like wine, cheese, or Matt Dillon.
Tequila, though, is different. Unaged tequila is considered by many aficionados to be the best way to enjoy the spirit. Why? Because the longer tequila sits in a barrel, the more it tastes like oak or charcoal and the less it tastes like the agave plant it was made from. The distinctive flavor you may associate with tequila—the sexy, shimmering feeling that lingers on your lips when you’ve been sipping it—is the flavor of agave. It’s also, in many tequila fans’ opinions, what makes tequila tequila. Otherwise, it’s just overpriced cognac.
Tequila comes in three styles (see the primer). Blanco, or “white,” is not aged at all, or is aged for under two months. It is, as the name suggests, a nearly clear spirit. Reposado, or “rested,” is aged for two months to one year in oak barrels and has a golden hue. Añejo, or “aged,” sits in casks for one to three years, and is amber colored. Some distilleries also offer an “extra” or “ultra” Añejo aged three years or more.
The flavor of Blanco can range from light and flowery to pungent and almost minty, depending on the region it came from and altitude at which it was grown. Its taste is the unique flavor of agave itself: herbaceous, vegetal, crisp as a cucumber, sparkly as citrus, and loamy as soil. When you transition from Blanco to Reposado, it’s almost as if you’re switching spirits. The young plantlike flavor diminishes, and you taste oak or charcoal, depending on the age of the barrels used to age the tequila. With Añejo, the difference is even greater. The liquor is oxidized from the barrel, and it smells and tastes more like cognac, brandy, even scotch, than it does Blanco. You might also taste butterscotch or tobacco notes.
“The smoky taste [of aged tequila] is only an advantage if that’s the taste you prefer,” says Judson Sherman, tequilier of One Little West Twelfth restaurant in New York City. And with tequila, there’s little of the snobbery that exists with wine. You’re allowed to like what you like, whether it’s old or young. For many, there’s no question. “The older the tequila, the more complex the flavor will be, but a lot of people really enjoy a young, crisp, citrus-y Blanco: it has a certain spark” that’s lost with aging.
Its taste is the unique flavor of agave itself.
Just like with scotch and wine, aged is more expensive. A good bottle of Reposado will cost you roughly $6 more than a good Blanco, and an Añejo about $12 more. Don’t decide what you like based on price. “This is the only spirit where the purists purposely drink it unaged because the fruit has enough flavor to give it a quality all its own,” says Julio Bermejo, tequila consultant and co-owner of Tres Agaves restaurant in San Francisco.
In fact, aging a tequila is sometimes used to disguise a substandard product. “If you make a great Blanco,” says Bermejo, “I’d say it’s a guarantee that everything else from that company will be great. If not, you might have a great Reposado or Añejo, but it’s because you used the wood to cover something up.”