Tequila gets a bad rap. Or a narrow rap. For most of us, it’s shots with salt and lime, or the boozy backbone to stiffen sickeningly sweet Margarita mix, or (and thank god) the stuff we use to get through the last open bar of the wedding season.
But the blanco and (please no) mixto tequilas we’re used to knocking back with nostalgic collegiate abandon isn’t the end of the tequila story, by far. At its best, tequila production is as romantic, traditional, and terroir-forward as anything we’d chase after in an American or Scotch whisky.
But the best way to get a sense for this, especially since fall is upon us is añejo. Yes, it’s at the pricier end of the tequila spectrum but fear not, we’ve got at least a couple options under $40 (and lower). It’s worth the investment, though, especially if you’re newly into darker spirits and have noticed the sudden bourbon-shortage-price-hike or can’t quite afford all the Single Malt Scotches you’d like. (Not that we presume to make any agave converts out of barley-fiends, not yet…)
Just a few notes of background, and for some tequila respect: it takes close to a decade (up to 12 years) for the blue agave plant (the only plant used to make tequila, unlike its cousin mezcal) to mature. Once matured, it’s not like grapes that are picked and grow back the next year. That agave is hacked to its literal—horticultural—heart, which is rich by now with delightfully fermentable fructose. Crush that heart and out bleeds the sweet juice, which is then fermented and distilled (often pot-distilled), and, if you’re lucky, aged.
And even if añejo’s only age between one to three years, that’s on purpose: tequila (well made, as in not mixto, or only 51% agave) is as much about the mysterious influence of the desert (highland or lowland) on the agave itself. Wood aging has more to do with softening, though many producers are availing themselves of the kind of “seasoning” you get from using a previously used, e.g. whiskey, barrel. If you like añejos but want more wood for your booze buck, go for the new class of “extra añejos,” aged over three years. (Just avoid mixtos.)
This tequila comes from the highlands, in Arandas, yielding a sweeter agave with balanced minerality (from the volcanic soils). Aged for anywhere from two to three years in Bourbon barrels, El Tesoro’s añejo is smooth and delicately sweet, peppered through with heat, citrus, and oak structure with just a soft hint of mellow toffee.
Another tequila from the Los Altos highlands region, with citrus, spice and wood on the nose as well as a hint of that highlands agave sweetness. The palate echoes, with citrus, florals, and caramel candy cresting along a warming wood-edged finish.
A splurge, but one way to really grasp the complexity of a well-made añejo. Per the name, Single Estate Ocho is all about terroir, making batches (and vintages) of tequila from single ranchos, with soil, production details, and tasting notes for each. All their añejos spend one year in American whiskey barrels, but from there, variety reigns. The 2012, for instance, comes from Rancho “El Refugio,” with a nose and palate buzzing with toffee, red fruits, green olive brine, pencil shavings, and caramel.
123 Tequila Organic Añejo “3” – ECO SUPER-FRIENDLY
Certified organic, packaged with recycled materials, and made without use of commercial yeast, this is another special kind of añejo, and not just for its eco-friendly practices. A lowland tequila (often spicier and earthier) aged for 18 months in new white oak, it has more herbaceousness, spice, and citrus gently prickling into the agave fruit. Complex but still light and smooth on the tongue.
A bit more moderate in price (mid-$40s), you still get an añejo aged for over a year in French oak barrels. This one’s unapologetically smooth, with notes of vanilla and caramel from the barrel. Not saccharine, just relaxingly balanced and requiring not much more than a comfortable chair.
Espolon Bourbon Barrel Añejo –BEST VALUE
Another bourbon-barrel finished añejo, with notes of caramel, wood, dried fruits, and chocolate pierced through with agave heat. And at under 30 bucks, a super-affordable intro to añejo that doesn’t skimp on complexity.
There might be some Clooney-hype driving up the price, but this is an interesting añejo in its own right. Teasingly delicate, but complex—roasted, as opposed to steamed, for 72 hours and then wood-aged for 14 months. Notes of cocoa and pepper on the nose with some caramel and sweetness on the palate, all drying out with a subtly spicy oak finish. Plus, yes, Clooney points.
Another relatively affordable añejo, around $35, that has a different kind of complexity, borrowed from charred American oak barrels. That means light tendrils of smoke intermingling with cocoa, peppercorns, honey, caramel, and wood—still with a lush, full finish. (Don’t let the red bottle fool you, this tequila is light gold, as it should be.)