Review: Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila

Usually, in the world of tequila, anejo is about as aged as it gets. It usually spends a little over a year aging in a barrel, but there’s actually no upper limit on the length of time you can age a tequila. So the folks at Hornitos have decided to push the envelope a bit with their Black Barrel tequila, which gets not only that standard one-year aging, but also an additional six more months on top of it.


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History

Don Cenobio Sauza was born in 1842 in Jalisco, Mexico. The third child of a farming family, he decided to strike out on his own in 1858 and found a job working at the Jose Cuervo distillery. There, he learned the art and science of tequila distillation and production.

Don Cenobio would eventually use what he had learned to open his own business exporting wine and spirits, including the tequila of his former employer. Not long after founding this exporting business, he decided to expand into production as well, eventually purchasing La Antigua Cruz distillery (founded in 1805, the oldest registered distillery) in 1873 and renaming it to La Perseverancia. That same year, his business became the first to export tequila to the United States. It was reportedly Don Cenobio who made the decision that blue agave was the superior variety of plant for making tequila.

The Sauza tequila business would pass through the family from father to son over the next two generations, expanding their operations and becoming one of the biggest tequila distillers in the world. The third generation, Don Francisco Javier Sauza, led the campaign in the 1970’s to have tequila recognized and protected as a regional appellation just like French Champagne or Tennessee Whiskey.

Don Francisco would also create a number of sub-brands of his tequila, one of which was founded in the 1950’s and called Hornitos. Translated as “little ovens”, the name is an allusion to the small brick ovens where the blue agave plants are roasted as the first part of the distillation process.

With the booming popularity of tequila and other clear spirits in the 1970’s, the Sauza family partnered with another Mexican company to expand production and distribution of their spirits. That partnership would eventually lead to a complete purchase of the family business in 1988 and, through a series of changes in ownership, the products eventually were purchased by Beam Suntory in 2011.

The spirits produced by the Sauza family of brands are still distilled at the La Perseverancia distillery to this day.

Product

The Hornitos brand of tequila is produced pretty much identically to the way Sauza makes their house brand original version.

The tequila starts with a crop of 100% blue agave plants, the same variety of plants that founder Don Cenobio decided were the superior source for tequila all those years ago. The plants are mechanically shredded and then a diffuser separates the water and agave sugars from the plant material. This is very different from the typical process, in which the plants are first roasted (usually whole) and then crushed to extract the juice.

Once the juice is extracted, it is cooked for about 6 hours to convert the complex sugars into simpler and more readily fermentable compounds. Once the sugars are broken down, the mixture is added to closed stainless steel tanks where a proprietary brand of yeast consumes the sugars and releases alcohol. The tanks are cleaned using an automated process after every fermentation.

After fermentation, the liquid is distilled twice to achieve the correct alcohol concentration. That newly made spirit is then chill filtered through carbon filters to remove fatty compounds and impurities.

This version of the tequila starts as an anejo, aged for at least 12 months in American white oak barrels. But then it is further matured for another four months in deeply charred oak barrels, and finally two more months in yet another set of toasted oak barrels before being bottled.

Packaging

The typical tequila bottle is usually a relatively long and slender affair, something designed to stand out on the shelves or be seen on the back of a bar. Short, plump, square bottles aren’t really all that common (outside of the infamous Patron bottles), but that’s what we have here. I like when a brand’s style matches its price point — I don’t need a $10 whiskey that’s been bottled to look like a finely aged scotch. And this is where Hornitos’ design fits perfectly: an unassuming bottle that suits the low-key, affordable brand.

One thing I particularly like about this specific design is that, besides the neck, I don’t think there’s a straight line to be seen here. The bottle looks like a melted block of ice, smooth and round on the corners with some warps and imperfections. It’s a cool effect.

As for the labels, I appreciate that the design is shaped like an agave leaf (actually tying the branding and design with the product is always a win), and I appreciate even more that it is centered on the bottle. This ensures that we can see the contents of the bottle all the way around the label, really showing off the spirit within. There is a bit of smoky coloring to the glass, which makes the spirit seem darker than it really is, but it’s a minor enhancement and not really an obscuration.

The bottle is topped with a nice cork and wood stopper.


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Neat

As you would expect, there are more barrel aging aromas coming off this glass compared to a normal tequila. I’m getting some specific wood components immediately: cedar chips, caramel, and vanilla, which are all common notes in bourbons and other well aged spirits. But there’s also a bit of freshness and a bit of a lift in the aroma, which I think is provided by that herbal agave making an appearance and adding a bit of fresh cut grass to the mixture.

My expectation when taking a sip would be that all of the maturation flavors would have overpowered the spirit, but to my happy surprise the actual flavors of the tequila are still here and contributing to the flavor profile. Immediately, I do get that cedar chip flavor, but there’s also herbaceous fresh cut grass and lemon citrus from the tequila that slides in and lightens things up to make this a much more interesting flavor profile. There’s also some good vanilla, brown sugar, and caramel that develops as the flavor progresses, and a touch of black pepper spice on the end that adds a good bit of kick on the finish.

I did find it interesting that, when taken neat, this might be my favorite expression of tequila from Hornitos. That black pepper spice is much more muted and incorporated into the flavor profile compared to even their anejo version, so this makes for a surprisingly good sipping tequila.

On Ice

What we usually see with the addition of some ice is that the aging and maturation flavors take a back seat, and the inherent flavors of the spirit seem to really shine through. And to a large extent, that’s exactly what happens here — and while it doesn’t exactly ruin the flavor profile, it does make it a little bit more dull.

Taken neat, that cedar chip component and the herbaceous tequila intermingled to make a cool, almost minty flavor that was really interesting. With the added ice, though, the cedar is almost completely gone and it leaves behind only the herbal agave to really carry the torch. There’s a touch of caramel and some brown sugar that eventually kicks in, but not at the same level that we’ve seen before.

This is still a nicely balanced spirit that doesn’t have any rough edges, it just isn’t as interesting as it once was.

Cocktail (Margarita)

What I’m looking for in a good margarita is balanced flavors and unique aspects to the profile. A margarita is a traditionally sour and severe cocktail, but an excellent tequila can bring everything into harmony.

That, happily, is exactly what happens here. The lime juice almost completely disappears, and the harshness of that sour component is tempered with the brown sugar and caramel flavors coming from the barrel aging of the tequila. I’m getting a lot more of the orange flavors from the Cointreau than normal as well, which is an interesting complication of the standard profile. And through all that, there’s still that touch of grassy agave adding some herbaceous aspects.


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Overall Rating

This is a great example of how a little bit of care and attention to the maturation process can turn a mediocre spirit into something truly interesting. The folks at Hornitos went literally above and beyond to create this tequila, using some interesting techniques that imparted some great flavors into the spirit.

I really like the interesting cedar chip flavor in here and the slightly more muted caramel and vanilla. It’s a nice trick, but I’d like it even more if it stuck around after the ice was added. I feel like those are some flavors that would be very interesting in the margarita, but I didn’t get nearly as much of them as I’d like.

Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila
Produced By: Hornitos
Owned By: Beam Suntory
Production Location: Jalisco, Mexico
Classification: Tequila
Aging: Anejo
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $25.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Cedar chips, caramel, vanilla, and herbal agave, all rolled into an interesting and delicious package.


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2 comments

  1. Whisky drinker here that dabbles a little with tequila. Your review is spot on. This is a fine sipping tequila that is best neat. Super interesting and very drinkable. Tough to describe but a very nice blend of tequila and whisky, very balanced. Big plus is the price point, it doesn’t cost much and is a big bargain compared to its complexity. I like it a lot!

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