With Cinco de Mayo around the corner, my thoughts have turned to sunny Mexico and the tequilas I tasted on a recent visit. The mythic beverage, laced with intoxicating powers rumored to bring one closer to the gods, has a reputation for being a frat-party shooter. But tequila comes in many varieties worth sipping, not slamming -- with sophisticated flavors of smoke, fruit and caramel that would be a shame to waste in a sugar-laced margarita.
Derived from fermented agave (desert lilies), the drink falls into three categories. Blanco
, or silver, is unaged, strongly flavored and often used in mixed drinks. Reposada
varieties, aka "rested" or gold, are stored for a short time in wooden casks and boast sharper and even peppery flavors. Anejo
, or aged, tequilas spend several years in barrels and serve up the mellowest, most complex -- and priciest -- options. Look for tequilas that are made from 100 percent agave, and avoid the lower-quality mixto
Thanks to its exotic lure and newly available small-batch labels, tequila -- like single-malt scotch, cult wines and even coffee -- is being fetishized stateside by would-be connoisseurs. Here are area bars where you can order your tequila neat.
ALAMO RESTAURANT. 5508 Kenilworth Ave., Riverdale. 301-927-8787. This neighborhood staple has served Mexican fare such as corn tamales and enchiladas to townies and University of Maryland students for more than 50 years. It also offers 60-plus tequilas ($7-$55). Indecisive imbibers will like the "flights" -- small tastings of three tequilas ($10-$15).
ANDALE. 401 Seventh St. NW. 202-783-3133. http://www.andaledc.com/ . This colorful spot draws theatergoers for great dishes such as crispy taquitos and snappy seviche, but some of its tastiest offerings come in a glass. Get your Tequila VIP Club Card punched each time you order one of the 40 or so tequilas ($6-$40), and you eventually earn free food -- from a snack to lunch for two.
AUSTIN GRILL. 750 E St. NW. 202-393-3776. http://www.austingrill.com/ . The after-work crowd mobs the Penn Quarter branch of this local chain that's decorated with battered Lone Star license plates and scraps of barbed wire. Ambitious regulars can join the tequila club: Drink each of the bar's agave spirits ($5.50-$30) and your Herculean effort will be recognized with your name engraved on a plaque. (No need to down them all at once: A record of your drinks is kept on file at the bar.) Tex-Mex fare, including nachos, chili and ribs, goes with the liquid refreshments.
RED ROCKS CAFE & TEQUILA BAR. 13850 F Braddock Rd., Centreville. 703-815-6900. This laid-back hangout claims to have the largest selection of tequilas in Virginia, with more than 60 options ($4-$56). For those who don't like it straight, the bar also offers dozens of margarita flavors (guava, anyone?) to accompany its Mexican-with-a-twist menu.
ROSA MEXICANO. 575 Seventh St. NW. 202-783-5522. http://www.rosamexicano.com/ . This chic downtown space with soaring ceilings and rose-petal murals boasts a separate tequila bar for aficionados who don't want to mix with the beer-swilling masses. The sprawling tequila list ($7-$40) reads like a fancy wine menu, and the drinks trump the upscale south-of-the-border fare. The clientele varies depending on what's on tap across the street at the MCI Center.