Jose Lara knows what people associate with tequila. "Having a really great time, getting crazy," he says. "And headaches, throwing up. Everybody has had a tequila nightmare."

Mine is coming back to me: Freshman year in college, I picked up hitchhiker Stanley Claxton, who spied my first bottle of Jose Cuervo and informed me of a party in the boondocks of southeastern Virginia.

There was no party. But the Dismal Swamp was just far enough away for Stanley to knock back half of my fifth -- and for me to get so irritated over the waste of time that I drank my share, too. As a result, I was soon locked in a sweaty embrace with the commode, swearing off tequila for life.

"That would happen with anything if you drink it straight, like a madman," Lara says. "I'm trying to change people's perceptions of tequila. You don't have to slam it; you can sip it and savor it and not have the nightmares.

"It's time that tequila got its propers."

Lara's giving tequila its due at Aztec Sol, his two-year-old bar on West 32nd Avenue that stocks a staggering collection of over 240 varieties of the liquor. But Aztec Sol is no shooting gallery. "We don't have shot glasses here," he notes. "We serve tequila in mini-snifters."

So what's that little shot glass doing there among the previous night's dirtied glasses? "That's an ashtray, as far as I'm concerned," he replies. "That's junk. You don't serve tequila in that! Tequila deserves respect." Shot glasses are reserved for bourbon drinkers and a few diehards who make the request: "Un idalgo, por favor."

Tequila has a long, respectable history in Mexico, where the blue agave plant is grown. A relative of the lily, the agave matures in five to twelve years. At that time, the hundred-plus-pound heart of the plant is harvested, roasted and chopped, its juice blended with water and the slurry fermented and distilled. The resulting liquid is then poured into stainless steel or wooden barrels, with many of the richer-flavored tequilas aged in various woods and former bourbon barrels for extra complexity. Reposado tequilas are under a year old, while anejo versions are aged for a year or more.

Good tequilas are made of 100 percent agave; cheaper versions use cane and corn sugars to round out their fermentable sugars. The Mexican government has imposed numerous quality-control standards on the tequila trade.

Jalisco is the Mexican equivalent of the Champagne region and the home of Tequila, the town that gave the spirit its name. Three generations of Lara's family have worked in the tequila business there, harvesting blue agave and taking it to local distilleries.

Today the family also makes its own tequila. A small oak barrel in the center of Aztec Sol's back bar holds Jose's personal stash of "Lara" tequila, a heady, south-of-the-border nectar rich with notes of pine, vanilla and wood.

Few customers get to tap this private reserve, but they have hundreds of other options. Almondrado, for example, an Amaretto-style treasure aged in oak and over almonds. This is tequila? "I gotta hit people hard with something from left field to get them to open their minds up," Lara says.

Equally thrilling is Hussong's, with banana aromas akin to a "ginjo" sake or a Bavarian-style wheat beer. Haciendo del Cristero is another goody, a white tequila with a buttery note in the middle and a creamy body. Other brands deliver the rich, woody-flavored rewards of a good cognac or a great single-malt scotch.

With each sip, I sense my future liquor-store tab changing, growing. I can see Stanley Claxton refusing to leave my car, trying to convince me that there's a party worth driving to somewhere in Virginia Beach.

Lara hopes to ultimately offer 300 tequilas, a roster sure to build nationalistic pride. "The Scottish people have whisky; Oriental people have sake," he says. "For Mexico, it's tequila."

A bar regular settles on a nearby stool and begins expounding on the importance of tequila to his homeland. In Mexico, he notes, trash collectors and working stiffs use tequila like Americans use cream, spiking the morning coffee with tequila in café con piquete. On a commuter train, a body can score a hot-java-and-tequila snort on the fly, as steaming eye-openers are slipped through train-car windows at each stop.

During the Christmas season, tequila serves as the antifreeze in ponche con piquete, made with spices, nuts and other seasonal ingredients. But this expert -- "Don't mention my name; my wife will kill me for being here," he says -- prefers to suck his tequila back in shot fashion. "It breathes inside you," he notes.

There are no such shortcuts at Panadería Guadalajara, the adjoining eatery owned by Lara's family. "Nothing comes from a can here," Lara says, taking a quick detour through the kitchen, where several women are preparing fresh ingredients for the day's meals. The walk-in cooler holds a fifty-gallon bucket of made-from-scratch red chile, the warming lifeblood of Panadería's dishes. In a pot big enough to boil a man, several hundred pounds of tripe are simmering in a stock for the house's popular menudo, a fine hangover cure.

But people come to Aztec Sol to savor, not swill. A group of judges regularly stops in for the expensivo tequilas that Lara keeps under lock and key behind the bar. Other regulars settle into snifters of tequila that range from $4 to $10.

Aztec Sol is a neighborhood gathering spot in the rapidly changing neighborhood of Highland. "I'm stuck in a phase now," Lara says. "This whole area has been known as rough. Then again, I've got million-dollar condos moving in. But the people in them cross into LoDo; they think that it's dangerous here."

To reflect the improving realities of the area, Lara recently removed the security bars that had shadowed the building for years. And he's working hard to accommodate both Hispanic and Anglo neighbors. "I'm trying to balance it," he says. "Two different cultures trying to hook up together, it's difficult."

Serious tequila is the social lubricant that gets folks eating and drinking in harmony (a development that would surely please Sammy Hagar and the Champs, tequila's most famous musical believers). "You can come in tonight, and there'll be Hispanic guys playing pool, having a good time," Lara says. "Even if you don't know a word of Spanish, they'll find a way to talk to you and make you feel comfortable."

A cultural exchange takes place as they run the tables. "They buy snifters, and they'll say, 'Yeah, that's good tequila, but man, try this.' Your Jose Cuervo is now going in the trash can. And you all start talking. 'No, this is the best tequila. Here, taste this.'

That's when all the good stuff starts happening."

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Marty Jones