Now with the market for high-end spirits on the rise, producers convinced the government that longer-aged tequilas, often priced at $100 or more a bottle, needed to be set apart.
Among the first of the tequilas labeled extra añejo to reach the American market is Gran Centenario Leyenda, aged about four years in French oak, and sold in a bottle similar to that of Rémy Martin XO Cognac. In coming months, Chinaco Negro and Partida Elegante, two new extra añejos, will arrive in stores.
The extra añejo designation will also appear on new shipments of Sauza Tres Generaciones (costing about $60 in New York liquor stores), 1800 Colección (about $2,000, in a special bottle), Cuervo Reserva de la Familia ($125) and other labels.
Sales of super-premium tequilas, those costing $40 a bottle or more, have increased more than 20 percent a year since 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group. So it’s no wonder that producers in Mexico are aiming for the luxury market.
But not all tequila lovers applaud this development.
“I like tequila for its essential fresh, bright floral character,” said Laurence Kretchmer, an owner of Mesa Grill and the author of “Mesa Grill Guide to Tequila” (Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998). “Extra aging produces flavors that are more roasted and nutty and don’t taste like agave. These aged tequilas are strictly luxury items.”
Like all fine tequilas, those given extra aging are made from 100 percent blue agave, the big succulent with spiked leaves that grows in central Mexico. The round, fleshy core of the plant, or piña, is cooked and crushed, and the resulting juice, or agua miel (honey water), is fermented and then distilled to make tequila.
The unaged spirit, diluted with water to bring the alcohol content down to about 40 percent, is silver or blanco (white), with a citrusy, herbaceous perfume and peppery intensity that can sometimes be harsh.
Tequila that is aged from two months to a year becomes reposado, which is likely to be softer and more nuanced than silver. Aged or añejo tequila is kept in oak, often in bourbon barrels, for a year or more and becomes mellower still, taking on overtones of buttered toast and caramel, and losing more of the vegetal agave character along the way.
Until fairly recently, tequila aficionados considered aging for more than three years to be a waste of time since it essentially tended to mute the character of the spirit.
I tasted a dozen extra añejos, aged from three to seven years, at a Dos Caminos restaurant with Eben Klemm, the beverage director for B. R. Guest restaurants, which owns the chain. More than half of them, including the Sauza Tres Generaciones, were in tequila denial.
But the 1800 Colección was sweetly vegetal and very rich with an elegant aftertaste; the Chinaco Emperador ($320 to $400) had a lingering herbal flavor, with whiffs of smoke, mint, citrus and caramel; the Herradura Selección Suprema ($250 to $350) was exceptionally smooth with tequila aromas and floral, herbal complexity; the Milagro Select Barrel Reserve (about $100) was smoky with a sweet fruitiness and a lingering finish; and the Gran Centenario Leyenda (about $250) showed tequila character in the aftertaste.
The best sources for extra añejos are Park Avenue Liquor Shop and Morrell & Company in Manhattan, and www.allthingsagave.com.
With an eye to the high-end market, many of the extra añejos come in elaborate decanter-style bottles nestled in fancy boxes, often numbered to indicate limited production.
“It’s evident in the packaging that some of these are not intended for tequila drinkers,” Mr. Klemm said. “And they’re not meant for drinking in a margarita either.”