Local aficionados tell us where to go to taste the best tequila, what to try and how to enjoy the burn.

When most of us hear the word "tequila," it's probably accompanied by an image of a shot glass with salt and lime-accompaniments viewed as necessary to ease the heat of an ill-tasting shooter. It's an understandable reaction, says Bakersfield's resident tequila expert, Jeff Snyder. "We try to recognize that everyone has had a really bad experience," he says. "I like to joke that it's Cuervo in college." But tequila isn't just a fast track to inebriation. In fact, it's a refined, complex spirit that-if tasted properly-stacks up to the likes of fine bourbon, whiskey and scotch. Local aficionados tell us where to go to taste the best tequila, what to try and how to enjoy the burn.

Lesson No. 1: Not All Tequila is the Same.

Snyder, general manager at Bakersfield's Cincinnati location, helped get the Short North bar off on the right foot when it opened, advising the bar on its selection of about 60 tequilas and ensuring it follows the golden rule: 100-percent agave.

"We don't carry any mixto tequilas," those made with a minimum of 51-percent agave, as required by Mexican law, he says. "We only carry 100-percent agave tequila. That means everything in the bottle was distilled from agave." No sugar or color is added, as it is to mixto tequilas (like Jose Cuervo Especial), which dilutes the earthy flavor of the agave.

There are three common types of 100-percent agave tequilas-blanco, reposado and anejo-and they differ in flavor and color. (Mixto tequilas commonly come in varieties called silver, a clear tequila similar to blanco, and gold, which is flavored and colored with caramel.)

Blanco tequilas are unaged and provide the clearest expression of earthy, peppery agave. Reposados are aged in oak barrels for a short time and pick up some of the wood's natural flavor (or that of the barrel's former resident, usually whiskey) and color. Anejos are aged the longest, absorbing rich oak flavor and dark color.

"The greatest example of [anejo tequila] is the Don Julio 1942," Snyder says of the limited edition anniversary tequila that usually costs about $25 for a shot. "It's the finest in tequila." Never shoot it, he says. Rather, slowly sip it at room temperature to fully appreciate its rich body and finish.

To guide newbies to tequila that complements their taste, Snyder starts with their liquor of choice. If it's gin or vodka, he steers them toward a blanco, because they're distilled virtually the same way. If they prefer bourbon or whiskey, he recommends a reposado or anejo because the barrel-aging process offers some familiarity in taste and color.

Lesson No. 2: Sip it; Don't Shoot It.

"There's a stigma that comes with tequila-that it's what you drink to get really drunk. That's not the case," says Cantina Laredo chef and bar manager Joey Killilea. "There's a lot of people from the Latin community who sip it and think it's crazy we shoot it." Located near Polaris, Cantina Laredo offers flights of any of their 18 blanco, reposado and anejo tequilas for $21.

The Short North's La Fogata offers three-shot flights of any of their 65 tequilas. Tasters can mix and match as they please, but one popular flight is composed of anejo tequilas including Patron, Don Julio and Herradura, manager Steven Gonzalez says.

Dublin's Tutto Vino carries more than a dozen tequilas, including mixto and 100-percent agave, but emphasizes higher-end varieties, says cocktail and fine spirits director Chris Manis. They offer customized flights of two to five tequilas, the prices varying by selection. He serves one-ounce pours for each.

When tasting all the varieties of a certain tequila (like Patron, for example), Manis recommends starting with the blanco before moving to the reposado and then anejo. If the taster has a known preference, he suggests tasting different bottles of the same category.

"To just compare a few different types of blanco tequila, it's fun to see how much difference there can be," Manis says.

He adds while the differences are slight, a trained palate can pick them out. First, they differ in heat, a characteristic that can be accentuated or diminished during the distilling process. Then, there is the difference in sweetness.

"You don't generally think there's much sweetness in tequila, but the agave plant does have it naturally," he says.

Lesson No. 3: Taste Like A Pro.

"One of the most important things is smelling the tequila first," Bakersfield's Snyder explains. He suggests using a glass that will capture the scent, like a snifter or a tulip-shaped wine glass.

Be sure to part your lips before taking the first sniff, he says. "The first sip you take should be a very, very small one to get your palate ready for the next taste and condition your taste buds for [the heat of the alcohol]." The second should be fuller. "Swish it around in your mouth before swallowing."

After swallowing, fully exhale before inhaling again. "That will activate the flavors in your mouth and down your throat."