Tequila is a distilled alcoholic drink made from the blue agave plant and produced primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila in Mexico. Like other spirits such as whiskey and brandy, tequila has the potential to age well over many years in oak barrels, improving in character, complexity and taste. But there is some debate over whether ultra-aged tequilas, those aged longer than about 7-10 years, are necessarily better than younger versions. This article will examine whether 20 year old tequila remains good and drinkable or whether too much time in the barrel diminishes quality and flavor.
How Tequila Is Made
To understand how aging affects tequila, it helps to first review the process of making it. Here are the basic steps:
- Blue agave plants are harvested after 6-8 years of growth. The heart (piña) of the plant contains fructans which are converted to fermentable sugars.
- The piñas are cooked, traditionally in steam ovens, to convert the fructans to fermentable sugars.
- The cooked piñas are crushed to extract the juices which contain the sugars.
- The juice is fermented, usually after the addition of yeasts.
- After fermentation, the liquid is distilled to produce raw spirit tequila. Often it is distilled a second time.
- The tequila is usually aged for various lengths of time in oak barrels previously used for aging wines, bourbon or other spirits. This adds flavor and smoothness.
- After aging, the tequila can be bottled as is, or blended with other tequilas of different ages.
So the key steps where aged tequila derives flavor and character – mellowing, taking on woody and vanilla notes – is during the barrel aging process. The duration determines whether you have a young blanco tequila less than 2 months old, up to extra-aged tequilas called extra añejos aged for several years. But at what point does extra aging start to diminish returns?
How Does Barrel Aging Change Tequila Flavor?
As tequila rests in barrels, a number of changes happen that affect the flavor:
- It absorbs flavors from the wood, adding woody, vanilla, and butterscotch notes.
- The sugars caramelize and react with the alcohol, adding complexity.
- Harsh Fusel alcohols soften and dissipate over time.
- Ethanol oxidizes and polymerizes, mellowing out the alcohol burn.
- Organic acids and other compounds that influence flavor are extracted from the wood.
- The tequila takes on the hue of the barrel’s interior char.
Many tequila experts feel these changes mostly plateau after 5-7 years in the barrel. Much beyond that, and the tequila starts losing the bright, herbal agave flavors that balance the woody tones. The extra oakiness can mask the pure expression of the agave.
However, some distillers feel you can get added complexity from prolonged aging without losing what makes tequila unique. They point to premium extra añejos aged 15-30 years as examples where the wood integrates without overpowering.
So which viewpoint is correct – does 20 year old tequila retain good flavor or not?
How Aging Affects Other Spirits
Looking at how extended aging impacts other spirits can provide insight into very old tequilas. Here are some examples:
Most experts agree whiskey does not necessarily improve much after 15-20 years in the barrel. The wood tannins and bitter notes keep intensifying while the alcohol evaporates, leaving a whisky potentially over-oaked and unbalanced. However, some feel 30 year or older whiskies can provide uniquely amazing flavors not found at younger ages.
Brandy is aged in oak barrels for years, even decades sometimes. But extended aging can lead to over-oaked flavors and evaporation thinning out the brandy. Most high-end brandy producers feel the spirit peaks at around 20 years old.
Dark rums mellow out nicely with 10-20 years of barrel aging. But super-aged rums 30 years or older tend to have intense oak flavors that overshadow the molasses and caramel notes. The quality is a matter of personal taste though.
Unlike spirits, wines do not age indefinitely in the bottle. Finer wines typically peak in quality from 15-25 years old. After that they start to decline into oxidation and Madeira-like flavors. Only certain dessert wines have the longevity to still taste good after 50+ years.
So while other spirits can sometimes benefit from 20+ years of aging, the consensus is most reach their prime earlier. Does this apply to tequila as well?
Professional Opinions on 20 Year Old Tequila
Here are the views of some tequila experts regarding how 20 year old tequila compares to younger versions:
- “When you go past about 7 years of aging, the woody flavors overpower the true agave flavors.” – Leopoldo Solis, Tequila Maker
- “Extra-aged tequilas aren’t necessarily better, just different. I find them too woody.” – Jacques Bezuidenhout, Tequila Educator
- “The longer tequilas age, the more the agave spirit merges with the barrel flavor.” – Grover Sanschagrin, Taste Tequila
- “Tequila really falls off after 10 years or so. At 20 years, it tends to be very woody and lose what makes it tequila.” – Tom Nall, Aficionado
- “A well-aged 20 year old extra añejo is complex with muted agave flavors that still come through.” – Daniel Arellanes, Distiller
As we can see, there is some difference of opinion. Those emphasizing the traditional tequila character tend to feel 20 years is too long. But some see merit in highly aged versions as long as the agave remains discernible.
Characteristics of 20 Year Tequila
What are some traits of ultra-aged 20 year tequila versus moderately aged versions? Here is a comparison:
8 Year Aged Tequila
- Golden amber color
- Light oak, vanilla and butterscotch flavors
- Balanced with notable agave character
- Herbal, citrus notes still present
- Smooth with mellow alcohol burn
20 Year Extra Añejo
- Deep mahogany color
- Intense wood, tobacco and spice flavors
- Muted agave character
- Loss of brighter herbal notes
- Very smooth, elegant mouthfeel
So we can see a 20 year old tequila tends to be much darker, richer in woody flavors but losing some of the classic agave character. It becomes more like an aged brandy. For some drinkers this is an amazing progression while others feel it strays too far from tequila’s roots.
Impact on Price
Extra aging to 20 years has a significant impact on price. Here’s how the cost typically increases with age:
|2 Year Reposado
|5 Year Añejo
|10 Year Extra Añejo
|20 Year Extra Añejo
The exponential increase comes from the rarity of aged tequila stock, the long storage time, and prestige of old spirits commanding premium pricing. Some feel the pricing gets unattractive at 20+ years though.
Reviews of 20 Year Tequilas
To further assess quality, here are reviews of some specific ultra-aged tequilas:
El Tesoro Paradiso
This super premium extra añejo from El Tesoro is aged over 20 years. Reviews are very positive:
- “Incredibly complex with vanilla, cinnamon and dried fruit.”
- “Smooth as silk with a chorus of oak, caramel and spicy tones.”
- “Expensive but an amazing sipping experience.”
Herradura Seleccion Suprema
Also aged 20+ years, this hand-selected extra añejo gets mixed reviews:
- “All oak spices, hardly any agave detectable.”
- “Like drinking spiced woody bourbon, not much tequila left.”
- “I prefer more balance of agave and oak.”
Don Julio Real
Aged 18-25 years, Don Julio’s limited edition extra añejo is polarizing:
- “A lovely duo of agave and oak.”
- “Flavorful with noticeable oak influence but still smooth.”
- “Way over-oaked. A boring one-note flavor.”
Reviews seem split on just how balanced the agave flavor remains versus becoming overwhelmed by wood. It likely comes down to personal taste.
Is Collectability a Factor?
Some ultra-aged tequilas become valued partly for their collectability in addition to the flavor. For example:
- Dedicated collectors seek out rare bottlings.
- Luxury gift sets with fancy packaging appeal.
- Limited editions can command high prices.
- Enthusiasts want to sample historical tequilas.
So the novelty and collecting aspect may outweigh fundamentals of taste for some 20 year old tequilas. They provide conversation pieces and status symbols in addition to beverages.
In summary, there are a few key points regarding 20 year old tequila:
- Extended aging of at least 7-10 years develops added woody complexity.
- But aging longer often diminishes the core fresh agave flavors.
- Reviews are mixed on whether 20 year old versions retain good balance.
- Higher prices can be hard to justify compared to moderately aged tequilas.
- Rarity and collectability influence the appeal for some drinkers.
So in the end, it comes down to personal preference. Aficionados who demand pronounced agave character are likely to find 20 year old tequilas too woody. But those looking for unique, complex flavors may appreciate the barrel-influenced traits. Given the high prices though, it makes sense to try before you buy. For most drinkers, a well-aged añejo or younger extra añejo may provide the best quality and value. But exploring an ultra-aged 20 year tequila can be an interesting experience for hardcore tequila fans.