Aged Tequila That Keeps Its Character

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Never mind the whiskey drinkers, how about some reposado for tequila drinkers?

Do a quick search for barrel-aged reposado and añejo tequilas and you’ll find a common concept: “the tequila for whiskey drinkers.” These tequilas are aged, often in ex-bourbon barrels, long enough for the spirit to pick up just as much barrel character as bourbon does, the argument goes. While that’s fine and dandy for the whiskey drinker looking to branch out, tequila drinkers must go elsewhere to find aged expressions that still taste like, well, tequila. Which is where a balanced reposado comes in. 

Reposados have nothing to hide behind. They lack the age that gives añejos such strong barrel qualities, but don’t have the excuse of youth to blame spicy raw notes on. The result is one of two things: In the best case scenario, a reposado is a mellowed out version of the joven. In the worst case scenario, a reposado tequila abandons all of the agave flavors tequila drinkers know and love.

“Wood management is an art form, and you have to respect the spirit,” Dave Singh, Palm Bay International’s brand manager of spirits, says on a recent night while sipping tequila at Casa Mezcal in New York City. By respect, he means that distillers should avoid turning an agave-forward tequila into an over-aged mess that tastes like “a number two pencil.”

It’s impossible to talk about reposado tequila without talking about blanco and añejo tequila. A reposado’s flavor is defined by the two styles it isn’t. It’s not as wild and vegetal as blanco, and not as wood dominated as añejo. It’s the Goldilocks of tequila expressions, equally ready for cocktails as it is to be sipped neat. It’s also a tricky style to perfect, especially for producers chasing flavors that consumers are already familiar with. Namely, the woody vanilla notes found in bourbon.

Some tequila producers out there are “absolutely trying to hit a whiskey palate,” Singh says. There’s potentially a lot of profit to be made by courting those whiskey drinkers. There’s also the potential downside that the tequila could lose any defining agave notes as it rests in the barrel.

“There’s this idea that darker spirits are better quality spirits,” says Danny Mena, co-founder of Mezcales de Leyenda (which have consistently won medals in the NY International Spirits Competition), and owner of the restaurant La Loncheria. “But if you like the reposado you have to like the blanco.”

A good reposado dances on a line with barrel flavors on one side and agave notes on the other. “Blanco is usually always agave forward,” Signh says. “A lot of reposados now go wood crazy and lose the agave soul. They’re almost like a zombie of an agave spirit.”

But the only zombies that anyone should drink are Zombie cocktails. For reposados that maintain the flavor of agave, look for these reposados.

El Mayor

El Mayor’s agave is grown in rocky volcanic soil in the state of Jalisco. Each plant is hand selected when ready, then fermented and distilled twice. From there, a portion set aside to become the brand’s reposado is put in American white oak barrels and aged for 9 months. The result is a tequila with some spiciness to it (which is notably less aggressive than in the blanco), but the main flavors that stand out are tropical fruit, vanilla and caramel. The spirit leaves a peppery flavor in your mouth along with that barrel sweetness.

El Tesoro Reposado

El Tesoro’s blanco is intensely vegetal, going from still to bottle undiluted. The reposado draws on that big and bold agave foundation while aging for up to 11 months, the maximum a reposado is legally allowed to age. A spirit so full of character isn’t easily calmed down, and the agave flavors still possess a key position despite the long aging time. Subtle oak notes bring out more of the sweetness and chills El Tesero out into a solid sipping reposado.

Chamucos Reposado

Chamucos has been sourcing from the same organic agave field since the early 1990s, and the last thing it wants to do is hide what that agave tastes like. The reposado is soft with vanilla and toffee notes that are present at the start of your sip, then quiet down so agave and tropical fruit notes can take over, and the finish ends with a touch of coffee.  

Tequila Ocho Reposado

Few brands have the same reputation as Tequila Ocho when it comes to emphasizing the agave. As the brand writes on its website, the spirit is made to accentuate “that which is exclusive to tequila, the agave flavor.” It’s a single-origin tequila where all of the agave is harvested from a single field, and each bottle notes the field the agave was grown in and the year it was produced. The reposado is aged in ex-American whiskey barrels for precisely 8 weeks and 8 days. Just enough time to smooth it out, not so much time that it erases the nuances found bottle after bottle.

Siembra Valles Reposado

This reposado spends around three months in proprietary American white oak casks that were previously used for the brand’s small-batch line, Siembra Azul. The barrel has only seen tequila, and that’s all that it needed. The first sign of a good reposado is catching a whiff of agave as you sniff from the glass, and Siembra Valles doesn’t let you down. An aroma of steamed agave is present, as is some nuttiness. A natural honey sweetness follows through along with some vanilla from its time in barrel, and the finish is all ripe agave.