There is nothing more satisfying than a refreshing Margarita on a hot day. Am I right? If you agree with me, you've experienced a well-made Margarita before, and if you disagree with me, then somebody effed up your Margarita.
Spending an extended amount of time in Mexico has turned me into a Margarita savant- at least that's what I say to convince people that we should drink Margaritas. Tequila is my liquor of choice, and I love experimenting with the different flavors that pair well with it. Through the Trial and Error Method (and years of bartending experience), I've found many ways to ruin a Margarita, but I've also discovered some coveted, mouth-watering recipes that would inspire Jimmy Buffet himself to write a sweet new song.
When Margarita Time comes, you don't want to be don't be a Zero; be a Hero! If you can learn how to master this cocktail, you will win at everything; arguments, fights, sports, pie-eating contests, parties, dancing, and more! Or at least you'll think you're winning at everything, which is almost as good. So break out your pen, your paper, your cocktail shaker- it's time to go to Margarita School!
Margaritas 101: Understanding Tequila
What is "Real Tequila?"
Rule #1: If it doesn't say 100% de Agave on the bottle, it is shitty tequila! If the spirit is at least 51% de Agave (and comes from the region of Jalisco), then by law it can be called "tequila." However, tequilas that are not 100% de Agave are technically "Mixtos," which means they are mixed with grain alcohol and other sugars (hangover alert!). So put the Jose Cuervo Gold back on the shelf- that stuff is garbage. If you love the Jose Cuervo brand so much, they make one called "Tradicional" which is actually very good, and it will at least earn you mild respect.
And while you're at it, don't go yelling "Shots of Patrón Silver for everyone!" to the bartender. You might as well be yelling, "Hey everyone- I'm a dumbass!" That may be harsh- but so is the tequila you just ordered. Tequila-savvy bartenders are laughing at you in their head while you rack up your bar tab. Don't give in to clever marketing schemes or people who think they know what they are talking about when they say Patrón is the best. It's decent, but that's it. Understand what you are drinking.
Different Tequila Types
Now that you understand the difference between "real tequila" and all the posers out there, let's go over the difference between all the options they bombard you with at the liquor store. What's the difference between Blanco (aka Silver or Plata), Joven (aka Gold or Oro), Reposado, and Añejo, and more importantly- which one goes best in a Margarita?
Blanco tequilas (Example: Patron Silver) are always clear in appearance. This is because they are not aged; they are generally bottled immediately after the distillation process. Contrary to what many people seem to think, this actually means the flavor is going to be more harsh. In my years as a bartender, I've gathered that people are generally under the impression that they are going to get a "cleaner" and "therefore smoother" experience by ordering a Silver tequila. Cleaner? Yes, technically. Smoother? No. I just asked my friend Juan here in Mexico, "Under what circumstances would you ever order a Silver tequila?" And he replied, "To play a cruel joke on somebody." It's purpose is purely aesthetic.
Joven tequilas are usually goldish in appearance. You can achieve this result by either tinting a Blanco tequila with colorings, syrups, etc. (Example: Jose Cuervo Gold), or by mixing it with an Añejo Tequila. Don't be fooled. It may look like a Reposado tequila, but it is not. I generally avoid these because I don't see the real point- it's either adulterated or a mystery blend. If you're interested in buying one of these anyway, stop reading.
Reposado tequilas vary slightly in appearance from a very mild yellow (Example: Jose Cuervo Tradicional) to a deeper gold (Example: Herradura Reposado), and are by far the most versatile. This type of tequila is going to be the best for your Margarita and is probably the most enjoyable tequila to "shoot" as well. They get their color from sitting in oak barrels for several months, which mellows out that harsh flavor that comes with the Blancos.
Añejo tequilas (and Extra Añejo tequilas) are typically a deeper reddish-brown color (Example: 1800 Añejo), and should really be enjoyed by those who actually appreciate the taste of tequila. It's meant to be sipped and sampled. These tequilas have been aged in oak barrels for a couple years and have pulled a lot more of the flavors and spice from the wood. They are wasted in a Margarita.
Margaritas 140: Base Ingredients and Recommendations
Despite the countless variety of "Classic Margarita's" you will find in the US and around the world, the widely-accepted classic version of the cocktail in Mexico consists of just four simple ingredients: Tequila, Orange Liqueur, freshly-squeezed Lime Juice, and Simple Syrup (or Agave Nectar). If you build your Margarita's around these base ingredients, you are going to yield much tastier results.
It should be noted that the Original Margarita only used three ingredients, omitting the Simple Syrup. Even the IBA (International Bartenders Association) calls for a recipe without any sweeteners, balancing the flavor profile by adding a larger portion of Orange Liqueur, which is also sweet. But this is nonsense. Should you encounter someone with this knowledge, you are now prepared to boldly defy them and engage in a heated debate. Declare that you don't care what the IBA says about a 7:4:3 ratio and that they are antiquated, pompous and would lose in a street fight. Follow that up with a hard stare while taking consecutive shots of tequila and rolling up your sleeves.
If you read the section above on tequila, then you already know to look for a good Reposado as your base. Their smoother and more flavorful profile is going to give you a better tasting Margarita than any other variety. There are dozens of good ones out there- but make sure the one you pick is at least from Jalisco and 100% de Agave (it will say it on the bottle).
Some of my favorite choices are:
- Herradura (pricier but delish),
- Don Julio (same),
- Jose Cuervo Tradicional (great for the price)- NOT to be confused with "Jose Cuervo GOLD," and if you can find it,
- Centanario Roseangel (super delicious Hibiscus-infused tequila).
Many bars use some variation of Triple Sec for the Orange Liqueur. This isn't the worst thing you can do to your Margarita, but Controy, Cointreau, Citrónge, or Grand Marnier will give you the best flavors. You may want to experiment with these when you have the opportunity to see which one suits your palette better. I prefer Grand Marnier personally- not because it's the most expensive- I simply enjoy the flavor profile the best. I also need to use less of it because it's more potent in flavor and strength, making the price point easier to validate.
Most bars in the States these days use sour mix or Rose's Lime (cordial) instead of actual lime juice. Not only does this prevent you from experiencing the refreshing sensation that the fresh lime juice provides, it taints your Margarita with chemical garbage that masks the authentic flavors of your base ingredients. Dump the Rose's down the drain, and throw the bottle in the recycling bin (my Green Peace friends would be proud of that sentence). Seriously though- it's that worthless. And the sour mix (including the mix that many claim to "make themselves") is full of the same chemical-laden, flavor-destroying crap. There is no substitute for fresh lime juice.
Simple Syrup/Agave Nectar
In regards to sweetening- Simple Syrup or Agave Nectar are both okay to use. I use them interchangeably. The plus side to Agave Nectar is that it always comes ready to use, and since it comes from the agave plant (as does tequila), it adds a complimentary funkiness to the cocktail. It's usually a bit more expensive though, and even though it's more widely available now, you still can't find it just anywhere.
Simple Syrup is more versatile, cheaper, and you can make it in the comfort of your home if you run out. Bring equal parts sugar and water (or more sugar than water to make it thicker) to a boil until the sugar dissolves, and you're done. Use raw sugar if you can help it- natural is always better.
Margaritas 201: Proportions and Building Technique
Getting the proportions right on your ingredients can make you love or hate your creation. While it's true that there are only four basic ingredients to the classic Margarita, they live together in a delicate harmony. Too much tequila will leave you wondering why you are torturing yourself and didn't just do a shot of it. Too much Orange Liqueur or Simple Syrup, and you'll be wondering if there's any tequila inside. Too much Lime Juice, and you'll feel like you're drinking a liquid "Warhead."
The key to getting the proportions right is balance; you want to be able to taste all of your ingredients. They are all part of the cocktail for a reason. Different tequilas and different liqueurs, though, are going to alter the necessary proportion to achieve this balance. Therefore, there is no predetermined ratio that works for every combination- I don't care what the bartending book says. Listen to your taste buds.
That being said, you can always get close by remembering the following proportions as a guideline:
- We want more Tequila than Orange Liqueur;
- We want more Orange Liqueur than Lime Juice;
- We want more Lime Juice than Simple Syrup.
How to Build Your Margarita
My recommendation is to start with a measurable amount of tequila, and then go down the list of ingredients, cutting each one by half as you go. So if you only have a shot glass and a shaker with which to do your measuring, you might give your first go at a couple Margaritas by doing the following, in this order:
- Pour 4 shots of Tequila into the ice-filled shaker;
- Add 2 shots of Orange Liqueur;
- Add 1 shot of Lime Juice;
- Add 1/2 shot of Simple Syrup;
- Shake ingredients like Tom Cruise would;
- Strain into ice-filled glasses;
- Garnish with a lime wheel (not a wedge- Hero, not Zero, remember?).
More often than not, this is a winning recipe. I highly recommend you order your Margaritas on the rocks, unless you're in the comfort of your home and dying for a slushy. Your bartender will be thankful he or she doesn't have to use the blender, and they'll also be less likely to chintz out on the alcohol. Blended Margaritas take away from the flavor profile greatly because you're distracting your taste buds by adding a million little freezing cold water rocks to the goodness that you just mixed together. It also melts faster, watering down your cocktail, yet, you can't drink it fast without suffering brain freeze. Ordering one of these is a perilous decision.
Margaritas 301: Mixology
Adding Ingredients to the Base Recipe
There are so many different ways you can put a unique and flavorful spin on the Margarita. It’s an incredibly versatile cocktail. It would be impossible to go over all of them here, but if you’ve mastered the basics above, you are much less likely to fail at an attempted experiment. Try to imagine which flavors would pair well with the basic Margarita you are already good at mixing, and then add ingredients one at a time, always mindful of the base proportions.
As an example, let’s consider the idea of adding Orange Juice to your Margarita. Many places I've worked at commonly added a splash of OJ to their Margarita, whereas other places called it blasphemy. What a lot of people don’t know is that, according to legend, the reason Orange Liqueur is now a standard ingredient in the cocktail is because in the original recipe they used freshly-squeezed Orange Juice. The transition to Orange Liqueur was only due to the speed and ease at which it could be made. Therefore, I personally like the idea of adding OJ to a Margarita- as long as it is freshly-squeezed! What is “no bueno” in my book is adding pasteurized juices, which taste completely different and are quite inferior.
Once we have decided to introduce a new ingredient to our base recipe, however, we need to ask ourselves, “How is this going to effect the flavor profile?” What are the properties of Orange Juice? Hopefully, you thought of “sweet” and “citrus” flavors. Is there anything in the base recipe that already has sweet, citrus, or orange flavors in it? Yes- three things- everything except for the tequila. Once we’ve identified this, we can then make the necessary adjustments to our recipe. To achieve the same balance as the base recipe, we will need to draw back a bit on the other three ingredients. Make sense?
I recommend experimenting with flavors that you like and how they effect the existing combination of ingredients, but here are a few winning ideas to get you started:
- Citrus flavors always compliment a Margarita. Just be sure to keep the proportions in mind. Personally, I love adding freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice. It takes a little bit of the sour away from the lime, and adds a little bit of sweetness- but not too much.
- Jalapeño slices are a delicious addition if you like spice! If you're kind of a baby about spicy things, only use a couple slices if you still want that flavor without feeling like a fire-breathing dragon.
- Berries can do magical things to your Margarita. Have you ever had a Raspberry Margarita? Maybe you have, but I'll bet it was with that Raspberry Death Syrup. Again- nothing compares to fresh ingredients! Try muddling some blackberries into your next Marg' and you'll see what I'm talking about.
One super easy and delicious way that you can add a twist to your Margarita (or shot) is to infuse it with fruits, vegetables, spices, or even flowers! The possibilities here are endless and this is where you can really get creative. You can infuse your tequila with multiple ingredients to take it a step further, and either strain it, or leave the infusers inside the bottle and rip the label off for a fancy display. If you do this, make sure to prepare an almost incredible story to explain to your friends how you came about the concoction.
One of my favorite infusions is Hibiscus Tequila. They have a drink in Mexico called Jamaica (ha-my-ee-ka, not juh-may-ka), which is a juice that's made with the hibiscus flower. It produces a deep red color and has a tropical punch sort of flavor. Locate these (dried) and drop a bunch of them into your bottle of tequila to let it infuse. In a matter of minutes your tequila will start turning red, and the longer the hibiscus hangs out in the bottle, the more flavor the tequila will absorb. It makes a beautifully-colored cocktail and adds an incredible flavor without sacrificing your base proportions.
Margaritas 435: Independent Study in Margarita-Making
Congratulations students- you've been schooled! So, now If I catch any of you ordering Cuervo Gold or Patrón Silver at the bar, you can expect the wrath of my yard-stick. If you've managed to absorb this information, you now have the authority to be a complete tequila snob. As my reward for completing the course, I have a special surprise for you...
The Juan Cazador Special
I'm going to share with you my secret and mildly-famous Margarita recipe that will make all of your wildest dreams come true...
- 2.5 oz Hibiscus-infused Tequila
- 1 oz Grand Marnier
- 1/2 oz Simple Syrup or Agave Nectar
- Juice from 1/2 Lime
- Juice from 1/2 Grapefruit
I hope you enjoyed this article! It only took me four days to complete, which means it's time for a Margarita. Now go make something fancy and share your results, questions, and comments below!