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Stop -- don't shoot!

January 23, 2008|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

IT would take weeks (and a small fortune) to taste all the hundreds of tequilas on today's market. But we thought we'd make a bold effort to find some good ones.

The challenge, we learned, is not finding excellent tequilas, but finding them at a reasonable price -- in the upper brackets, count yourself lucky if you're paying less than $210 for a bottle of Gran Centenario Extra Anejo Leyenda, and a 30th anniversary Chinaco anejo can set you back $570. So our tasting zeroed in on lesser-known tequilas around $30 (where we figured we could find some serious bottles).

Thirty years ago, of course, there were only three brands of tequila on the American market: Jose Cuervo, Sauza and a newcomer named Herradura, the only 100% agave tequila available. Even 10 years ago, when Americans were becoming aware of premium tequilas such as Patron and Don Julio, there was nothing like today's profusion of brands. A Boyle Heights market named Ramirez Liquor currently lists more than 350 tequilas on its website.

The reason for all these tequilas is simple: Today's tequila-drinking public is more sophisticated and demanding. Mexico has responded by allowing tequila to be made outside the state of Jalisco, where it originated, giving rise to the possibility of subtle new effects of climate and terroir.

In terms of price, there's a fairly smooth range from Buen Amigo or Baja Tequila at less than $10, with basic good-quality tequilas available at $15 to $20, up to the $120 range, although you'll find a few bottles way above that.

We assembled 16 tequilas from local liquor stores specializing in tequila and chose six favorites, listed here in order of preference. We were looking for sipping tequilas, rather than mixers, which meant we marked tequilas down for a burning taste that in a mixed drink would not be problematic -- in fact, a bit of burn is part of the tequila aesthetic for many people.

We wanted a distinct agave flavor, but we were surprised to find aromas well outside the familiar citrus-herbal-olive territory in some bottles; to the good, we thought, when they resembled whiskey or Cognac, but in other cases unpleasantly reminiscent of asphalt or sweat. Altogether, the tasting made it clear that there's a lot of variety out there.

These tequilas may also be found at other retailers, sometimes at higher prices. For this tasting, I was joined by deputy features editor Michalene Busico, restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, assistant Food editor Betty Hallock and Test Kitchen recipe tester Noelle Carter.

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Sophisticated sippers for around $30

bandonado reposado. The aroma is a sophisticated, harmonious mixture of sweet agave and green olive brine aromas. In the mouth it provides a sharp, clean attack with a bit of sweetness and a medium- long finish. A refined sipping tequila. And we liked the gurgling sound as the tequila pours out of its bulbous ceramic jug. At Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, (818) 996-1414, www.wineandliquor depot.com; and Ramirez Liquor in Los Angeles, (323) 261-2915, www.ramirezliquor.com.

El Charro anejo. This tequila goes through fascinating changes. It hits the nose with a plush, oaky sweetness more characteristic of whiskey than of tequila. On the palate it's rather whiskey-like at first, but with the appearance of an anise note. Then the long, smooth finish arrives and the flavor becomes all agave. So it's three liquors in one! Available at Mission Liquors in Pasadena, (626) 797-0500, www.mission liquor.com; and at Wine & Liquor Depot.

Arette blanco. From the clean, singing agave aromas to the long, medium-dry finish, this is a model of what a blanco should be. Elegant and sippable by itself, it would also make a wonderfully aromatic margarita. Available at Mission Liquors.

De los Altos reposado. Though it's only a reposado (aged two months to a year) this tastes as if it's older. The nose has Cognac-like notes of oak and caramel as well as an agave citrus quality. On the palate, it's smooth and slightly sweet with a somewhat abbreviated finish. Available at Ramirez Liquor and Wine & Liquor Depot.

on Ramon reposado. We found roasted agave, mace and pickled aromas in the nose. The flavor expands in the mouth for a smooth, rounded taste. At Ramirez Liquor.

Tres Mujeres reposado. The aromas of this one were pleasant and distinctive: cola or root beer, dried fruit (perhaps dried pears) and pepper, with not much agave character. Surprisingly, the sweetish nose goes along with dryness and a substantial burn on the palate. Some of the tasters were quite taken by the packaging -- faux leopard skin and a leather strap; "a Camp Beverly Hills tote," one taster wrote. At Beverage Warehouse in Los Angeles, (310) 306-2822, beveragewarehouse.com; Ramirez Liquor and Wine & Liquor Depot.

-- Charles Perry

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