PORTLAND, Maine — The beverage formerly inspiring the cry “let’s do shots” is now a top-shelf contender. In a corner restaurant in Portland, one man is doing his part to bring tequila to its richly deserved prominence.

“I’m a defender of the spirit,” said Sergio Ramos, who notes he is one of only four tequila sommeliers in the country.

Behind the bar at Mexican restaurant Zapoteca, where 112 different tequilas await discerning patrons, Ramos, the restaurant’s managing partner, pours himself a snifter of reposado, aged up to a year.

Dipping his sensitive smeller into the glass, he takes a deep inhale.

“I love the smell of this,” he said, giving the amber liquor a swirl. Taking a sip, he sighed with delight. “It’s absolutely my favorite. I can drink this anytime.”

In the past two decades, improvements in tequila production and education from people like Ramos have elevated this spirit to a broader audience. A new generation is discovering that tequila is not always best buried in lime, salt and triple sec. To savor its nuances, drink it “room temperature, without other liquids, in a snifter,” said Ramos.

Certified by the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico and endorsed by the Association of Tequila from Mexico, Ramos is an agave ambassador who equates the beverage to a single-malt scotch or grand cru wine. With competition for Mexican cuisine growing fierce in Portland, Zapoteca stands apart with Ramos, their in-house tequila sommelier.

“We are slowly attracting a foodie crowd that wants to know more about tequila,” said Ramos. “When it’s 100 percent tequila it’s one of the best spirits to enjoy.”

Growing up in Guadalajara, where agave plants grow up to six feet tall, he knows the drink intimately.

“It’s one of the most natural spirits you can find,” said Ramos.

Like champagne, tequila adheres to certain standards. It must hail from western Mexico and pure, blue agave. Blends, says Ramos, don’t count.

At Zapoteca, he helps guests navigate his offerings. His first questions: “Do you drink wine? If so, what do you like? Red or white?”

If a scotch drinker enters his bar, he recommends reposado, a gently aged vintage or “old man tequila.”

“I don’t even tell them it’s tequila and they say, ‘Wow, that’s a great scotch,’” he said.

At a tequila dinner last month where chef Shannon Bard paired delicacies such as chile-rubbed venison in a red mole sauce with anejo tequila from Patron, Ramos worked the room. Guests marveled at the spicy and oaky taste of straight tequila teasing out the piquant flavors of the meal.

“It’s a first for me. I didn’t know there was such variety,” said Tim Porta, who manages a string of resorts including The Black Point Inn in Scarborough. “I never thought about tasting tequila on the front and back of your tongue.”

But Bard and Ramos have. In addition to monthly tequila dinners in Portland and their second restaurant, Mixteca in Durham, N.H., guests can book a private tasting with Ramos.

“People really come in just to see him,” said Bard. “It’s fantastic.”

Whether you take it straight up in a snifter or as a cranberry sage margarita, here’s something to cheer:

“You can enjoy every single flavor and aroma that the tequila might have and you don’t wake up with a hangover the next day,” said Ramos.

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.