Añejo is the most expensive and supposedly most refined form of tequila (besides extra añejo, which became an official category in 2006). But there are very few añejos that I would drink over a decent whiskey or brandy. Why drink an agave liquor if you can’t taste the agave?
While judging the San Francisco World Spirits Competition last week, I was on a panel tasting añejo. One of the other judges, Diageo Master of Whisky Steve Beal, said, “When you’re talking about añejo tequila, you’re really talking about fake whiskey.” Beale is an affirmed whiskey man, but he knows a lot about tequila and often gives presentations on Don Julio, a Diageo brand.
I tasted a dozen añejos that couldn’t have been more different. All of them were 100 percent agave, though many showed no agave character at all, tasting more like weak whiskey because the oak cloaked the flavor. Colors ranged from light amber to mahogany.
The exotic tropical and vegetal flavors of well-distilled agave are not particularly compatible with the vanilla sweetness and spice of oak barrels. White oak (Quercus alba), the kind used for these barrels, is not indigenous to Mexico; rather it was adopted at some time in the (relatively short) 150-year history of tequila, probably for storage purposes. Today, flavor, not storage, is the primary reason for the use of European and American oak barrels, in an attempt to emulate the characteristics of fine, oak-aged rums, whiskeys, and brandies.
My favorite añejos at the tasting were the ones that had the most agave character. These were 7 Leguas, which won the competition, and El Tesoro. But, given the choice, I’d take a good highlands blanco over a wood-aged tequila any day. The clear, unaged versions of El Tesoro, Don Julio, 7 Leguas, or Espolón express the essence of agave well. Or better yet, go for an excellent mezcal such as Del Maguey, which, thanks to its primitive fermenting and distillation methods, is the purest form of agave spirit there is.