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In 1991 Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired at the age of 38. Now, into their 3rd decade of this financially independent lifestyle, they invite you to take advantage of their wisdom and experience.

All About Tequila Barrels

The Whys and Wherefores

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli

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The making of tequila is both an art and a science, a lot more complex than I had ever realized before.

Billy and I had taken a trip to the town of Tequila some years back and it was our first experience of learning about Mexico's National Drink.

First a few basic points, then I'll tell you why barrels are used in aging tequila and why they are so important to the taste of this unique drink.

Designated tequila-making Mexican states

Designated tequila-making Mexican states

Tequila can only be labeled as such if it is made from the Blue Agave plant harvested from these specific states in Mexico: Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas.

The Mexican government has strict standards on the making of this drink - which locations it can be made, which agave must be used, and how long or if the liquid should be aged. These are the generalized standards that any distillery must follow in order to label their product tequila.

Blue agave plant, Jalisco, Mexico

The Blue Weber Agave plant

Driving through the Highlands of Jalisco, you will see agave fields lining the highways on both sides. When an agave field is "resting" often corn will be the alternate crop planted in order to replenish the soil.

Jimadore harvesting agave pina, Jalisco, Mexico

A Jimadore harvesting mature agave pina

 

 

 

 

The skill and knowledge of a good Jimadore is passed down through generations of family workers. The trained Jimadore knows when an agave plant is mature and when it's the right time to harvest.

This man is using a specialized hoe called a coa de jima, to pull the pina from the ground. Then he slices away the toughened leaves to expose the pina.

The Jimadore is paid by the pina, and these pinas can weigh from 20 to 80 kilos each.

Blanco tequilas from El Pandillo, Jesus Maria, Jalisco, Mexico

Blanco tequilas from El Pandillo Distillery

We have already discussed the roasting of the pinas, the crushing of them to release the aguamiel, the fermentation and then the distilling.

Here you see a sample of blanco tequilas from El Pandillo Distillery. These have not been aged in any wooden barrel, and are young tequilas. They can be referred to as "Silver," "White," or platas due to their clear color.

However, it is legal to age a blanco in a stainless steel tank for up to 2 months, and this will smooth out the flavor of the plata. If a wooden barrel is "exhausted" then a blanco can be rested there for up to 2 months, and still legally be called a blanco.

An exhausted barrel should not impart any flavor to the blanco. If you taste any vanilla, then this tequila is not a blanco, or an additive has been placed into the liquid.

Storage barrels of tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

Storage barrels of white oak for aging tequila

So why the barrels? Why age tequila? And why white oak?

The CRT, which is a Tequila Regulatory Council that governs quality and the standards of this production, says Tequila must be "aged" in oak.

It can be new or used, charred or not. This is a choice left up to the Master Blender (the chemist) or the Master Distiller. This is how one tequila differs in taste, color and texture from another.

Jack Daniels Whiskey barrel used to age tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

Jack Daniels whiskey white oak barrel used to age tequila

Most tequila companies like the used American white oak whiskey barrels, and Jack Daniels and Jim Beam are the most popular.

But they are not the only ones used to impart flavor to the tequila.

The longer a tequila ages, the more color and tannins it will have and the smoother it will be to the taste. Sometimes barrels can be toasted or charred, and this will "reset" the barrel for more tequila aging in the future.

And all of this affects the tequila taste and character.

A barrel maker in Jalisco, Mexico

Gonza the barrel maker in Jalisco, Mexico

A barrel maker is called a Cooper.

Gonza purchases used barrels from America and France and - depending on the condition of the barrel - he'll char them, toast them, or use the wood to reconstruct a new barrel of a different size to sell.

A barrel maker cutting down the staves of the barrel to a different size

Cutting barrel staves to different sizes

This is the Cooper's son - who is being taught his Father's trade - cutting down the barrel staves to a certain size for barrel making.

Recut barrel staves, Jalisco, Mexico

Re-cut barrel staves

Here are some barrel staves from a larger charred barrel that have been cut and tapered for a smaller barrel.

Hammering of the staves into a smaller barrel

A quick hammering and steel bindings

Wooden strips are fit into steel circular forms and pounded into a tight fit.

Some of the barrels that the Cooper has purchased were aging wine or other spirits inside of them. These are the ones that he uses to create a "new" barrel in 1 liter, 5 liter, 10 liter sizes and grander.

It's a local custom for Mexicans to purchase a non-descript blanco tequila, put them into one of these re-purposed barrels, and age the liquid themselves for the holidays or give as a gift.

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Barrel shavings, Jalisco, Mexico

Barrel shavings - nothing is wasted

In order for the narrow pieces of wood to bend properly into the barrel shape, the inside of each strip is chipped away at its center making the wood easier to form a curve.

These shavings are later used to char or toast a barrel for the flavor it gives to the tequila, or to repurpose an exhausted barrel.

Charring a barrel used for aging tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

A tequila barrel being charred

Toasting or charring helps release the vanillin from the cellulose in the wood. A heavier char can provide for a sweet smoke flavor or a taste of chocolate or leather.

This is how a barrel alters the flavor of a reposado or anejo.

Each distillery chooses the flavors they want to emphasize for a certain style of tequila.

Contents of a tequila aging barrel, Jalisco, Mexico

Details of the barrel's contents - quality control

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The CRT (a regulatory body) must place this paper over a barrel's opening, and the CRT must remove it. This ensures the quality, contents and aging of the the tequila inside. When removing this label, the CRT must record this action.

This is very serious business, especially if a distillery is aging their product at a separate location away from their own property. If this slip of paper has been tampered with, or if someone other than the CRT has removed it... There is trouble to pay!

This slip of paper says "Tequila in maturation." It lists the El Pandillo Distillery with the lot number (P-0026) underneath. The category is 100% Agave (the only kind you should drink) and then it lets you know that there are 50 casks of this lot of tequila.

On the top right you will see "folio 38/50" which means this folder is cask #38 of 50 other casks.

various bottles of aged tequilas, Jalisco, Mexico

Tequila bottles lined up in the tasting museum located in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

Here you see a variety of bottle styles with aged or slightly aged tequila inside them.

In the world of quality tequila, the focus is on a "natural" product, with no caramel, corn syrup, glycerine, aspartame or even Stevia added.

The law allows up to 1% of additives, but the best tequilas emphasize that no additives have been placed into the liquid.

different bottle styles of tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

Various bottle styles

 

 

 

 

Here you can see the differences in the colors of these tequilas. Depending on which barrels have been used (toasted or charred) and how long the tequila has been aged, a natural tequila will vary in color.

On the other hand, some distilleries choose to add caramel coloring, because some consumers confuse darker color with longer aging, and smoother taste.

Everyone has their own style. When you are choosing a tequila and you like a particular distillery, you can also check a bottle for that maker's NOM. Anything with the same NOM on it is made at the same distillery.

This is one way to be sure you have a quality tequila - that, and only drink tequila that is 100% Agave.

Again, Mixtos have other alcohols and syrups like cane syrup which can give you a hangover. These are not for the serious tequila drinker.

aging tequila barrels, Jalisco, Mexico

Barrels aging tequila inside

In order to keep the quality of tequila at a high standard, and not to lose too much liquid to the "Angels' share" storage rooms must be both even temperature and humidity. The barrels at the top are at a higher temperature than the ones on the bottom and this affects the flavor.

If there is not enough humidity and the barrel staves dry out from the outside, then there is more space for the liquid to evaporate. This becomes costly to the distiller and it will also affect the flavor of the aging liquid inside.

Sometimes a distillery will water down the floor to keep humidity high or they might spray the barrels themselves. The staves will absorb the water and swell, keeping all edges tight and closed. 

Now you know more than most people do about tequila - and why this National Drink of Mexico has the respect of the world!

 

For more information, photos and stories about Mexico, click here

For more information on tequila, click here

The most extensive tequila database on earth, Tequila Matchmaker

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About the Authors

 
Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance, medical tourism and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their award winning website RetireEarlyLifestyle.com, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. They wrote the popular books, The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible available on their website bookstore or on Amazon.com.

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