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WINE & SPIRITS

Tequila in flight

Boutique bars with hundreds of choices, tastings geared to the connoiseur -- in L.A., vino is making room for anejo.

January 23, 2008|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

WALK into an L.A. tequila bar and your head starts spinning even before you see the bottom of your first caballito (Mexican shot glass). Just the numbers are astounding -- 96 blanco tequilas, 130 reposados, 121 anejos, a pour of a tequila named 1800 for $10 or of one called Tres-Cuatro-Cinco for $175.

On the heels of the tequila boom, tequila bars are multiplying, especially here in Los Angeles. And ever since Corzo tequila hit the bottle-service scene, it seems you can't go to the mall without bumping into a temple of agave spirits. It's a tequila lover's paradise, but who's helping the not-yet-aficionados distinguish 4 Copas from 7 Leguas or a Hacienda de Oro from a Hacienda de la Flor?

Some bars, such as Pink Taco in Century City with its panuchos (pink tacos) and rowdy Guadalajara-goes-Vegas atmosphere, are capitalizing on tequila's good-times reputation. Others such as Amaranta Cocina Mexicana in Canoga Park are more ambitious Mexican restaurants for whom the wide selection of fine tequilas is as much a requirement as an impressive wine list is at an upscale Italian place.

But before you jump off the margarita wagon and start sampling those sippable tequilas, plenty of which are priced in the $25- to $35-per-shot range, take note -- you're often on your own when it comes to picking your three-year anejos or limited-production reposados.

Amaranta opened in a Westfield shopping center in Canoga Park in June with a selection of more than 350 tequilas. Six-month-old Pink Taco (also in a Westfield mall) has more than 100 tequilas. "We just bumped up the tequila list with another 12 last week," says Pink Taco chief executive Harry Morton.

There's the new Mucho Ultima Mexicana in Manhattan Beach, where the Bermuda shorts-in-winter crowd can choose from 150 tequilas. Owner Michael Zislis says he plans to have 250 ("that's all the bar can hold").

Come spring, Jimmy Shaw, owner of Loteria Grill in the Original Farmers Market, is opening a second Loteria -- this one with a full bar featuring tequila.

"I don't want a selection of more than 100," Shaw says. "I think that's overwhelming. I want a staff that really knows what we're presenting."

What's hip to sip

EVEN choosing from among 100 tequilas can be daunting. It's not enough anymore to know your silvers or blancos (not aged) from your reposados (aged from two months to a year) from your anejos (aged for a year or more) from your golds (which can contain additives). There's extra anejo (aged for three years or more), gran reposado, blanco suave, platinum, even flavored tequilas.

The classification extra anejo, or extra aged, was approved by Mexico's National Committee on Standardization only about two years ago (along with flavored tequilas), so there are more anejos aged five years or even longer that are arriving on the market.

High-end mixologists are adding anejos to their cocktails, whereas bartenders once were loath to pour the aged stuff for anything other than sipping. Meanwhile, it's ever more hip to sip your blancos and reposados, so every category in the market is trendy.

"It's still an evolving market, but you have to watch out because there's a lot of marketing that doesn't necessarily have to do with the product," says Ian Chadwick, who runs a tequila forum on his "In Search of the Blue Agave" website. "Gran reposado doesn't mean anything. Blanco suave doesn't mean anything."

Then there's lowland style, highland style, double- or triple-distilled tequila, tequila aged in wine barrels, private labels, limited production runs and more showcase bottles than you can shake a lime at.

Help?

"I try to do personalized tastings with myself or my staff so that people can better understand -- and get what they want," says manager Matthew Dickson at Malo in Silver Lake, where the tequila list runs upward of 170 tequilas (plus 22 mezcals).

"People should feel comfortable getting tequilas. It's an extensive menu -- no two tequilas are the same -- and it can be intimidating."

There are no set flights on the bar menu at Malo; you have to ask for a tasting. "If somebody's new to tequila, I'll do all silvers or reposados," Dickson says. "A lot of people are caught up in the anejos, but the agave flavor of a good silver is fantastic. . . . I don't serve it in a shot glass. Ever. It comes neat, in a whiskey glass, at room temperature. No lime or orange or salt on the rim."

That 'special one'

NOT everyone at every tequila bar is helpful. It's not uncommon to walk into a tequila bar, ask for a recommendation and have the bartender tell you, "I don't really drink tequila," or look back at the wall of tequilas behind him with an expression as befuddled as yours might be.

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