Liquor producers love to wax poetic about the "magic of the barrel"—when a raw spirit goes into a barrel, and comes out later transformed by its contact with wood. Flavors like caramel, vanilla, coconut and spice appear where none existed before.
But let’s get real: that magic takes years to produce. Yet, that hasn’t stopped bartenders from trying their own sleight of hand, experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails, or oak staves and spirals to infuse barrel flavors into booze. Meanwhile, a trendlet of upstart companies are now offering ways to add wood-aged notes to spirits or drinks at home.
At La Contenta, a temple to agave on New York’s Lower East Side, head bartender/partner Alex Valencia is taking another approach to add wood-like flavors to tequila—but his technique doesn’t involve any oak at all. Although plenty of barrel-aged tequilas exist, such as reposados "rested" in oak from two months to one year, or longer-aged añejos, Valencia is not a fan. He prefers a purist approach to agave spirits.
"It’s already been aging in the earth for eight to 12 years, just waiting for Mother Nature to give those flavors," Valencia preaches, referring to the slow pace needed for agave plants to mature. "Why turn around and put it in oak?"
Although Valencia frowns on barrel-aged tequilas as inauthentic—"we don’t drink it over there," in his hometown of Guadalajara, he insists, he’s not altogether opposed to the layers of spice that exposure to oak imparts to a spirit.
Valencia’s compromise: Birthday Tequila.
"The point is to replicate what they do with añejo— without waiting three years ..."- Valencia
So named because he offers shots of it to guests on their birthday, Valencia starts with a 750-ml bottle of 100 percent agave blanco tequila, such as Milagro or Siete Leguas. He pours the tequila into a tall cut-glass decanter, then adds one long Mexican cinnamon stick snapped in half and four vanilla beans scored down the middle. The spiced tequila is set on a high shelf to infuse for about two weeks. Occasionally, he’ll shake or invert the bottle to help things along.
"The point is to replicate what they do with añejo without waiting three years," Valencia explains. Indeed, it’s redolent with vanilla, cinnamon and coconut—the same flavors found in barrel-aged tequila—but still shows plenty of agave bite.
This isn’t Valencia’s first experiment with infused spirits. Previously, he worked at New York's whiskey-centric Flatiron Room, where he attempted to coax unaged "moonshine" to sipping spirit status by infusing it with orange peel and spices.
"We finish it so fast!" Valencia says, as a visitor exits the bar, having gleefully downed a warming shot of Birthday Tequila on his appointed day. "It’s easy to drink."
Motioning to the decanter, he adds: "If you see this is empty, someone had a good night."