For many of us, our first experience with tequila reads something like this: You started off hanging out in a friend's basement, downing Cuervo shots, and woke up the following morning wondering who put a sledgehammer to your head and where your pants went. Since then, you've probably never given tequila a fair shake.
But there's far more out there when it comes to this much-maligned, underappreciated alcohol. To start, let's cover the terminology: The most basic tequilas are called blanco, meaning clear and unaged. Reposado, meaning rested, indicates a step up in quality; these tequilas have aged for at least a couple months in barrels, which give the tequila that special tan color. Anejo, or aged, tequilas are at least a year old. And the whole "worm" thing? It's mostly a lie; they're only in mescals, a different kind of drink altogether.
In anticipation of Cinco de Mayo, we've done the legwork on the liquor to make sure you don't end up swilling bottom-shelf margaritas. And from agave to anejo, Sauza to shooters, these locales will renew your faith, and expand your vocabulary, in the world of tequila.
Salud Tequila Lounge
Man, is this Bucktown business in love with tequila, and we're better for it. Someone has to be dedicated to teaching the populace about the finer points of the drink. With over 75 premium tequilas, an ever-changing schedule of tequila tastings and "Tequila Club" monthly dinners (often featuring representatives from distilleries), this swank room caters to those seeking a high-class experience. Specialty cocktails run $8-$9 and include tequila takes on mojitos, appletinis and, for the Carrie Bradshaws in the crowd, the Platinum Cosmo: El Tesoro Platinum tequila, Cointreau, lime and cranberry juice and rimmed with sugar.
Named after Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapatista, this bar features 21 blanco tequilas, 24 reposado tequilas, and 25 anejo tequilas; tequila flights, organized by label, start at $25. Ever heard of a Snakebite? That would be a shot of tequila mixed with hot sauce, usually tabasco. Zaptista's La Bala (the Bullet) takes that one step further. For $6.75, take a shot of tequila infused with jalapenos (previously steeped in Patron), which give it an extra tangy kick. One of the 14 bottled beers will help tame the heat.
Agave Bar & Grill
The name of this new Lincoln Avenue spot honors the Blue Agave plant native to Jalisco, Mexico, which is used to make any high-end tequila. A solid menu of carne asada, enchiladas and chunky creamy guacamole complements Agave's selection of 50-plus tequilas. If you like sweet, cocktails are the way to go here, such as the Black Cherry Margarita and El Corazon (a mix of pomegranate, mango and passion fruit juices, tequila and a salt and pepper rim) for $8. Come Wednesday for a $4 Paloma (normally $7), with fresh grapefruit juice, tequila orange rum and some Squirt.
In addition to flaunting an amazing flight of specialty guacamoles, this upscale River North spot knows its tequilas better than anyone else in the neighborhood. It claims to have 130 different tequilas from the blanco, reposado, and anejo varieties to complement its mostly small-plates menu. Try the $9 strawberry-mint margarita, featuring a blanco tequila with muddled lime, strawberry and mint; or splurge on a tequila flight, starting at $14 for three one-ounce pours of blanco tequila, all the way up to $48 for the premium tequila flight.
What the Twisted Lizard lacks in tequila pretension and variety (it offers 30 tequilas on the menu) it makes up for in volume. All margaritas can be ordered by the glass or, for those on a mission, by the pitcher. The 'ritas come in various fruity permutations, like the strawberry, cranberry or unnaturally blue. The Rosa version features one of the gold-level tequilas (like Perfidio or Herradur) with Triple Sec, raspberry liquor and blended fruit juice. The best part? At $3 for a house margarita on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, these are the least expensive 'ritas we found, so you'll have cash to pay for valet (parking is virtually nonexistent in this area).