Warning: Asking Ramiro Rubio for his "finest tequila" can be hazardous to your bank account, as one bunch of revelers found out not long...

Share story

Warning: Asking Ramiro Rubio for his “finest tequila” can be hazardous to your bank account, as one bunch of revelers found out not long ago. With their approval, Rubio poured them 10 shots of Cuervo Colleccion totaling $1,100.

Another group, celebrating a couple’s 10th anniversary, shelled out more than $400 for a half-dozen shots of Porfidio Barrique, one of the other “top shelf” tequilas at Rubio’s Capitol Hill spot, Galerias Gourmet Mexican Restaurant. Maybe they were lucky to get it for $70 a pour; Rubio has since bumped it to $105.

What gives? Are we talking about tequila, the stuff of college parties and killer hangovers? The high-octane fuel that helped turn Cinco de Mayo into one of America’s most celebrated holidays?

Isn’t this the liquid fire country singer Joe Nichols warns about in his hit single “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”?

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Si. And no.

When restaurant patrons browse through tequila lists offering dozens of choices, that’s a clue. When liquor stores carry high-end tequilas at prices usually associated with single-malt scotch, that’s another.

But when aficionados toss around terms like “floral notes,” “layers of complexity” and “hints of caramel and vanilla” to describe a beverage that used to be knocked back with a lick of salt, a bite of lime and a wince of esophagus-searing pain, there can be no doubt:

Tequila spoken here

Tequilas meant to be sipped — not slammed — are turning up all over the Seattle area. Here’s just a taste:

Cactus: Brothers Marc and Bret Chatalas offer more than 30 tequilas and six “samplers,” featuring three 1-ounce pours of different tequilas, starting at $12.50. Just get your income-tax refund? The $35 combo teams three “top shelf” tastes: Gran Patrón Platinum, El Tesoro Paradiso and Don Julio 1942; 2820 Alki Ave. S.W., Seattle; other Cactus locations, with somewhat smaller lists, in Madison Park and Kirkland (www.cactusrestaurants.com).

Galerias Gourmet Mexican Restaurant: Don’t let the “Day of the Dead” figures guarding Ramiro Rubio’s most precious bottles scare you off; he’s got more than 150 tequilas on his metal-jacketed, five-page tequila list, and though they top out at more than $100 a shot, most are in the $5-$10 range; 611 Broadway E., Seattle (www.galeriasgourmet.net).

Spitfire: Belltown’s “urban sports bar” — is tequila-sipping an urban sport? — lists 14 premium tequilas, 18 margaritas and a margarita sampler. Their new feature: On the first Thursday of each month, Chef James Earl presents a food-tequila pairing menu of three small food courses, each matched with a tequila, for $20; 2219 Fourth Ave., Seattle (www.spitfireseattle.com).

La Carta de Oaxaca: Bartender Zach Harjo at this busy Ballard favorite loves to talk tequila and has a selection of about 30, including some not on the printed list, and margaritas in which you actually do taste the tequila; 5431 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle (www.lacartadeoaxaca.com).

Matador: “First and foremost, we are a tequila bar,” says general manager Sarah Kronzer, and she’s got the selection to prove it: More than 75 bottles, ranging up to $85 a pour for Don Julio Real, served in a small, brandy-style snifter. Sales of “sipping tequila” are growing, but if you had a nickel for every margarita served to this crowd of 20- and 30-somethings, you could fly down to Mexico and have yours on the beach; 2221 N.W. Market St., Seattle; also in West Seattle and Tacoma (www.matadorseattle.com).

Peso’s Kitchen and Lounge: Uncertain what to try? Ask for a small taste. General manager Dan Olsby has no interest in sticking you with something you don’t like, and guarantees to always have at least 70 tequilas in stock. Toward the spendy end of the list is Herradura’s Seleccion Suprema for $50; 605 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle (www.pesoskitchen.com).

Frida’s Gourmet Mexican Restaurant: Owner-chef Josè Antonio Piña, a cousin of Rubio at Galerias, presides over a list of more than 200 tequilas, topped off by Cuervo Colleccion, aged in French oak and going for $110 for a 1.5-ounce pour. Better hurry for that one; last we checked, he was down to less than half a bottle. 3226 132nd St S.E. #108, Mill Creek (www.fridasmexrestaurant.com).

Tequila has arrived.

Major tequila types

Blanco (or silver): Clear and transparent, bottled immediately after it is distilled, displays much of the taste and aroma of the agave plant.

Gold: Typically not aged and may include color or flavoring ingredients such as sugar syrup, caramel coloring or oak extract.

Reposado: Aged at least two months in oak, mellowing the tequila “bite.” Pale yellow.

Añejo: Aged at least a year in oak barrels, picking up flavors such as caramel and vanilla. Deep golden color. A new category, “extra añejo,” is aged at least three years.

And you should know:

No worm: If it has a worm, it’s probably mezcal, a different spirit also made from agave.

Sangrita: Sipping tequilas aren’t usually served with lime and salt, but may come with a small glass of sangrita on the side. No, not the fruity wine punch called “sangria” — sangrita is a combination of juices and spices intended to enhance tequila’s impression on the taste buds.

Tequila sales in Washington rose 15 percent last year to 256,860 cases, the biggest increase of any major spirit category, said Steve Burnell, liquor-board marketing manager.

Today’s tequila-sippers are people like Jason Smith, 34, of Wedgwood, who was having a margarita at Cactus in Kirkland a couple of years ago when owner Marc Chatalas asked if he’d like to try a tequila sampler.

“At first I was like ‘No thanks, been-there-done-that.’ We did shots years ago, and it was nasty stuff — rough on your throat, harsh on your nose, hard going down. It was just something you did to get wasted.”

But Smith, who works for a company that provides professional services to law firms, gave it a try and now appreciates the nuances of a fine aged tequila. “It’s got a lot of interesting, different flavors, different feel, smooth finishes — something you could approach like a wine or scotch.”

Many of the younger customers driving tequila’s success at places like Matador in Ballard — sporting a list more than 75 different tequilas — weren’t even alive when Jimmy Buffett came out with “Margaritaville” in 1977. The original parrothead was ahead of his time, but on the right track. The “frozen concoction” he serenaded is now America’s favorite cocktail, says the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

“We have a lot of people who go to Mexico; that’s a factor. And I think people are interested in the artisan nature of some of the tequilas,” said Burnell, adding that premium brands show the sharpest increase. On liquor-store shelves, bottles in the $45-$55 range have become commonplace, with the selection topping out at $189.50 for Gran Patrón Platinum.

But you don’t have to be rich to try decent tequila. Even on extensive tequila lists around Seattle, the bulk of offerings still go for $6 to $10 for a 1.5-ounce pour. Some bars offer “tequila samplers” with small amounts of several tequilas side-by-side, encouraging exploration.

“People have always been afraid of tequila,” said Ryan Magarian, a former bartender whose company, Liquid Relations, advises restaurants on cocktails and spirits. “It’s got a strong flavor, and it takes time to get used to. But when they learn to appreciate it and try some of the brands that are out there, they become very loyal.”

Even though tequila is surging, Washingtonians still buy more than four times as much vodka. And Magarian is quick to point out Seattle “is still in its tequila infancy, certainly compared to California.” Consider that Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Franciso boasts a tequila tasting club of more than 6,000 members.

Among the signs of tequila’s emergence: Spitfire, which opened in Belltown last year, has begun offering a once-a-month “tequila pairing menu,” combining three food courses and three tequila tastes for $20. Those bacon-wrapped jalapeno prawns? They pair up with a Don Julio Reposado.

Perhaps we could have seen this coming. Ever since salsa surpassed ketchup as America’s favorite condiment in the 1990s, highlighting the Latin influence in the U.S. marketplace, it was only a matter of time before tequila claimed the spotlight.

In the Southwest and West Coast in particular, an interest in Mexico’s regional cuisines has helped pave the way for an appreciation of the distilled nectar of the blue agave, a desert succulent that takes up to 12 years to produce its pineapple-shaped fruit.

Now even casual consumers are looking for ones that are 100 percent blue agave, and noting the differences between clear, “blanco” tequilas and the slightly aged “reposados” or the longer-aged “añejos,” which can have aromas similar to cognac.

At Galerias, Rubio, a Guadalajara native who’s been collecting tequilas for more than two decades, said tequila is benefiting from the Mexican government’s efforts to regulate where it can be grown and how it can be produced. Only five Mexican states, and only certain regions within those states, can label their product “tequila.” Agave spirits made outside those areas have other names, such as mezcal.

Rubio traveled to Mexico last year for a four-day class put on by the Tequila Regulatory Council designed to deepen retailers’ knowledge of the beverage.

And despite the attention tequila is getting on its own, the amount being served “neat” in this country is still tiny compared with the oceans of it poured into margaritas. Every bartender worth his or her salted rim claims a special technique or formula, with the best designed to showcase a good tequila instead of obscuring it in what Magarian calls “adult limeade.”

In the tiny bar of at La Carta de Oaxaca, a half-block from Matador, bartender Zach Harjo is familiar with the “bad rap” tequila has to overcome. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘I got sick on Cuervo Gold in college and I haven’t gone back to it.’ They’ve had bad tequila or too much of it, and they think if they even smell it they’ll get sick again.”

With a selection of nearly 30 tequilas — including a half-dozen not on the printed menu — Harjo enjoys wooing customers back into the tequila fold with a smooth-tasting añejo, like the Gran Centenario for $13 a shot. “I almost don’t like calling it a ‘shot,’ ” he said. “That brings up those old negative connotations. Good tequila has so much more to offer.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222

or jbroom@seattletimes.com

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.