If you’ve ever watched an episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners,” you know that even the most rudimentary hooch operation is a scientific marvel.

On the left, my barrel-aged tequila. On the right, Herradura silver. To the back left, a Bluegrass Barrel holding about a liter of Herradura silver. Holding the camera: a guy enjoying his work.

How did anyone ever think, “Now, if I boil this grain/sugar cane juice/roast this agave and let it sit a few days, it’ll ferment, stink like the devil … and then I’ll add yeast, let it stink and bubble some more and then boil it and condense it and it’ll taste really good.”

A smarter mind than mine, clearly.

Even smarter minds considered how to turn that rocket fuel into something that actually tasted really good by aging it for years.

Which brings us to the point of this blog: When it comes to whiskey, tequila and most rums, the really good stuff is born of time in a charred wood barrel and years of confinement in a dusty warehouse resting undisturbed (but, unfortunately, not un-taxed in Kentucky).

One example of this practice sits before me on my desk: a small 1-liter barrel filled with Herradura silver tequila. The barrel came from a boutique cooperage in Louisville called Bluegrass Barrels, whose publicist told me about the micro-trend of barrel-aging cocktails.

This is where a bartender takes, say the shelf-stable ingredients in a Manhattan, mixes a large batch of it and pours it to a wood barrel, ages them for a time, dispenses them to order and finishes the drink. (And marks the price up considerably, I’m sure.)

The extra time in the wood adds flavors of vanilla, caramel, honey and sometimes a hint of citrus. The barrel’s char also adds a smoky nuance I figured would favor tequila.

Which is where the generous folks at Brown-Forman got involved. Hoping to learn more about aging tequila, I proposed a few blogs that updated the barrel’s influence on B-F’s Herradura silver tequila first, by itself, and second, along with Cointreau, to see what an aged margarita base will taste like.

Being the generous folks they are—I swear, this isn’t a paid endorsement and I didn’t solicit these supplies—they sent two other “expressions” of Herradura: reposado and anjeo. For scientific purposes, of course.

Testing color, taste and texture

A tequila geek likely knows Herradura silver gets 45 days in the barrel before bottling, but since it’s nearly colorless, that information isn’t visible.

After 30 days in my Bluegrass Barrel, however, the silver has turned nearly as golden as Herradura’s reposado (aged 11 months), and it picked up a slightly reddish cedar tone.

To judge them accurately, I did a side by side tasting of the original and the aged.

Bottled: The nose bears hints of citrus and agave sugar, as well as a touch of butterscotch. (What’s that, tequila snobs? You say that’s all agave? No butterscotch? I’m going with my own rooter, not yours. Plus, the two other anjeos in my cabinet are butterscotchy, too.) The mouthfeel is amazingly balanced from front to back and delivers good spice and a slightly peppery edge throughout the mouth.

A healthy sip brings good helpings of agave and vanilla, and a scarce hint of mint shows up on the exhale. Once swallowed, vanilla returns with a late bloom of cinnamon. The flavor is bright, playful and clean.

Barrel-aged: The nose delivers the same citrus edge, but the agave and butterscotch aromas found in the first share the air with vanilla. The mouthfeel is a tad more peppery and sharp, a pronounced but not unpleasant texture preferred by high-proof spirits fans. A healthy sip delivers agave and cinnamon to the front of the tongue, and plenty of wood and char to the back, especially on exhale. Vanilla and a bare hint of citrus reemerge mid-palate after a brief rest, which is a nice surprise and likely a promise of further complexity with more aging.

Back to the wood and char: Directions for using a Bluegrass barrel advise each be filled completely, emptied and refilled three times with water to remove any excess char or strong wood flavors.

The barrels are also cured by submerging them in water to make their staves swell shut so the barrel won’t leak.

It also says the barrel can be reused as many as 10 times for tequila.

Bluegrass Barrels founder Jeff Ames said the miniature barrels are made from used bourbon barrels, cut to size reformed into barrels and re-charred, so the user isn’t working with first run wood.

“I’ve not aged tequila like that before, so I’m not sure how it’ll turn out in our barrels,” Ames said, adding that he likes to age bourbon with a vanilla bean in his barrels. He suspected, however, that the stronger wood flavors would diminish some with reuse. “Most people are aging bourbon in these, so I’m hoping you’re going to be able to tell me how the tequila does.”

The Herradura anejo (aged two years) also bears a healthy breath of the barrel, but it’s not nearly as woody as mine. So, per Ames’ advice to “taste it every two weeks to see if it’s getting better,” I’ll report back with my findings.

Barrel aged in a cocktail: Making a margarita from my scratch sour mix, Cointreau and the barrel aged tequila yields a smoky result. The flavor is more complex than straight silver tequila and stands up well to the edge of fresh lime. Me likee.

At first.

After working my way through about half the drink, the wood notes begin to dominate unfavorably, a point echoed by my wife. Again, perhaps with age and as the tequila reaches deeper into the wood’s fibers, it will extract mellower flavors.

Straight or mixed? I’m a big fan of sipping straight tequila. Seated in a comfy chair with a book to read and time on my hands, a single ounce of good stuff will last me 20-30 minutes and leave me sated.

As of this 30-day tasting, I like the straight silver better than the barrel-aged version.

Same for the mixed, but this is an experiment designed to see whether time kisses or disses the remaining tequila.

Want to try the experiment yourself? Go to Bluegrass Barrels’ website and look around. Ames said they’re very popular gifts for groomsmen, but I think they’d make a swell and unique Christmas gift.

How cool would it be to serve your friends a signature aged cocktail off your own bar, right?

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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