When most Americans think of tequila, they picture sodden nights of salty wrists and possibly offensive sombreros. That's a lot like thinking of bourbon as Early Times, Coke and a NASCAR infield.

Sophisticated tequila is the southern cousin to small-batch bourbon, as you'll see at this weekend's Tequila Fest PDX. We asked Robert Fisher of Casa del Matador, Northwest 23rd Avenue's popular tequila bar and restaurant, for a primer. Before you embarrass yourself by busting out the salt shaker, read on.

The spirit goes beyond shots and margaritas

If you want to tap tequila's cocktail potential, try the Brave Bull, made with coffee liqueur, or a Tequini—tequila, dry vermouth and Angostura bitters. Fisher's favorite companion is grapefruit, as in the Paloma.

Terroir matters

The best tequilas are made with 100 percent agave. Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, and is grown in five Mexican states. The elevation, soil and weather where the plant grows matters a lot, with agave from higher elevations being more delicate and plants from lower elevations being spicier. "It's similar to wine in that way," Fisher says. "How the distillation process goes, where the plants are grown and the altitude in which it was grown all matter in terms of the tequila's flavor."

All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila

Tequila is made only from the blue agave plant, while mezcal can be distilled from 25 or more types of agave plants. According to Fisher, most mezcals are smokier and richer in flavor than tequilas.

There are five types of tequila

"Tequila is more varied than most vodka or rum," Fisher says. "You can go from a light, smooth taste to a peppery, heavier, deeper flavor." There are five types of all-agave tequila: blanco, joven, reposado, añejo and extra añejo. Blanco, or silver, is made from blue agave unaged and bottled right after distillation—aficionados prize it's purity. Joven is made with unaged silver tequila blended with either flavoring syrups or aged tequila. Reposado tequila is aged from two months to a year. Añejo gets a minimum of one year in barrels—usually French or American oak—but less than three. Extra añejo, or "extra aged," is aged a minimum of three years. The oldest tequilas are usually about a decade old and come in crystal decanters priced at $1,000 or more.

What's up with the worm in the bottle?

Lime and salt? 

Good tequila just doesn't need it.

What's with the burn? 

"There's a misconception that all tequila leaves you a burn in the back of your throat," Fisher says. "They call it the 'tequila burn.' But that's just cheap tequila. Most are amazingly smooth.” 

GO: Tequila Fest PDX is at the World Trade Center Outdoor Plaza, 121 SW Salmon St., on Friday (5-10 pm) and Saturday (4-10 pm), Aug. 22-23. Tickets $15 advance, $20 day of the event (includes seven tastings). $25 VIP passes advance (includes 10 tastings and admission to air-conditioned lounge). Additional tastings $1 each. See tequilafestpdx.com for more info.