by Jeffery Lindenmuth
It may be a newcomer to the world of classic cocktails, but don’t underestimate the Margarita. According to David Dorsey of Brown-Forman Corporation, Louisville, importers of Don Eduardo tequila, the Margarita is today’s most popular cocktail, representing 17 percent of all mixed drink sales, eclipsing classics like the Martini and rum and coke, trendy Cosmopolitans and minty Mojitos alike. “The Margarita is driving the total sales of tequila, making it one of the fastest growing spirits on a percentage basis,” says Dorsey. Just as impressive as its popularity, is the Margarita’s ubiquity. He adds, “This is not just a Tex-Mex thing, but totally mainstream.”
Several places, in both Mexico and California, claim credit for inventing the Margarita between 1930 and 1940. In reality, the Margarita — tequila, lime juice and triple sec— is not all that distant from its Prohibition-era progenitor, the Sidecar — brandy, lemon juice, and triple sec. Especially when you consider that in Latin culture, there is little distinction made between lemons and limes: the word limôn pretty much covers both.
In Ted Saucier’s 1951 edition of Bottoms Up, tequila doesn’t even get a mention, but by the 1961 revision, he includes the tequila Margarita and the tequila Sunrise, with both recipes hailing from Los Angeles. From the 1970s forward the Margarita makes a rapid ascent. Although it devolved in a frozen, fluorescent green concoction somewhere in the Reagan years, the renewed interest in classic drinks has people taking a more serious look at the Margarita.
Let’s take the ingredients one at a time to better understand the makings of a margarita.
Carlos C. Camarena, master distiller behind the truly artisanal El Tesoro tequila, says the key to a Margarita, like any cocktail, is to start with the best ingredients, and in this case that means 100 percent Agave tequila. “I think people are far more educated on what pure flavor is,” says Camarena. Using 100% Agave is particularly important in a classic Margarita where the flavors of the tequila are allowed to shine through, rather than hide behind artificial sweeteners and colorful mixers.
‘If you really want to know what tequila is about, you should drink Blanco,” says Camarena, referring to a style of unaged tequila that frequently offers grassy, herbaceous and peppery notes. “I think reposado and añejo are more for palates that enjoy brandy or Bourbon because you have the wood influence,” he adds.
That’s not to say you can’t make a Margarita with these styles of tequila. Dorsey says he really enjoys a full-flavored Margarita made with the Don Eduardo Añejo, a style of tequila aged in wood for a year or more. And it’s not unheard of to mix even the most expensive and longest-aged tequila. “I personally would not make a Margarita with a high-end añejo like our Paradiso. I prefer to sip it because it has five years of aging in French oak,” says Camarena.
Al Lucerco, proprieter of Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe and author of The Great Margarita Book (Ten Speed Press, 2004) agrees. Lucero offers about 130 different Margaritas, almost all of which are combinations of the three classic ingredients, simply substituting different styles of tequila and triple sec. His entry-level Margarita is made with Cuervo Gold and Bols Triple Sec ($5.50). “It’s our lowest common denominator and the Cuervo Gold, a mixto, is really outstanding,” says Lucerco. At the top end, he combines El Tesoro Paradiso tequila with Grand Marnier Cuvée Spéciale Cent Cinquantenaire, for a top shelf Margarita priced at $45.
In a blind tasting of Margaritas made with 100 percent Agave tequila conducted for this story, the variety of orange liqueur turned out to have far more impact on the final flavor than the brand of tequila. Flavored with dried orange peel, these sweet liqueurs range from lightly aromatic and vaguely lemony, to intense with orange and spice.
The two most popular premium brands are Cointreau, a premium French triple sec that has been called for by name by leading mixologists since before Prohibition, and Grand Marnier, an orange liqueur that blends bitter orange flavored distillate with real Cognac. In our blind tasting, tasters agreed that these two spirits yielded the best-balanced and tastiest Margaritas from the traditional recipe. The most obvious difference between the two is in the color, with the clear Cointreau resulting in a luminous and light drink, versus the rich burnt orange of the Grand Marnier Margarita. (See next page for full tasting notes.)
There is simply no substitute for fresh-squeezed juice. Lime juice imparts not only tart acidity, but the lurid and natural color typical of a true Margarita. Lemon juice, however, has its proponents as well.
Equally important to quality is freshness. David A. Embury wrote in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks in 1948: “And when I say to use only freshly squeezed fruit juices, I mean squeezed when you make the cocktail—not the day before, not an hour before, not even a half-hour before.”
Putting It All Together
Once you’ve selected the finest ingredients, bringing them together is pretty straightforward. A good starting point for combining the three ingredients:
2 ounces tequila
1 ounce triple sec
1 ounce fresh lime juice
Shake ingredients thoroughly with ice and stain into a Margarita glass. By shaking with ice the proper amount of water dilution takes place and the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Trying to make this classic recipe in a blender, on the other hand, usually results in a watery drink. Of course there is room to tweak the recipe, with the most common adjustment upsizing the entire drink, or upping the tequila to 2 ounces. It’s really about balancing the drink to suit your taste and your ingredients of choice. And, there is no limit to the number of variations of fruit flavors you can add to a Margarita. Even Lucerco has acquiesced to include Margaritas in flavors of pomegranate, strawberry, peach and mango. Although the four fruit drinks are a small portion of his 130 varieties and they all use real fruit.
The traditional garnish is to coat the glass rim with Kosher salt. This is somewhat reminiscent of the sugared rim of a sidecar or crusta, but it seems more likely that it’s a carry over from the salt, lemon, tequila shot ritual which was already being partaken by Hollywood types in the 1940s according to Lucerco. To salt or not? We’ll leave that decision to you and your cardiologist. With salt or without, a well-built Margarita is deserving of its stature as the world’s most popular drink.
The Starting Point
Tequila: What You Can Say about These Fine Brands
If you haven’t looked back to 1800 in a while, it’s time to revisit this brand. Now an all-Agave brand with a complete range of Silver, Reposado and Añejo, 1800 Tequila has soared in quality and popularity, experiencing 15% growth in the year beginning April 2004. The newest marque, Silver, is delicate with fresh and floral Agave flavors. The Reposado adds nuances of sweet butterscotch, caramel and vanilla, and the entire line represents great value.
El Tesoro de Don Felipe
This artisanal producer steams their agave in brick ovens and distills all their tequila to 80 proof precisely, so there is no need for dilution with water. The silver marque, now called Platinum, is wonderfully vibrant, grassy and fresh with citrus and mineral character while the Reposado introduces lots of roasty Agave character, with caramel, vanilla sweetness and Christmas cake spices. The five-years aged Paradiso is suitable for sipping and decadent in a Margarita.
These triple-distilled tequilas are remarkable for their fresh, bright flavors, particularly the Silver. And with five marques there is a tequila to suit every taste. A real eye-grabber on the back bar or the retail shelf, the tequila Romance combines both Reposado and Select Barrel Reserve Añejo, aged for three years, in a unique bottle with two cavities. It’s ideal for customers just learning about different styles of tequila. And at Maria’s in Santa Fe, Margarita guru Al Lucerco actually makes a Margarita that combines both the ultra-premium spirits in one drink.
Don’t be fooled by the no-frills label and twist-off bottle, this 100% Agave Reposado is the real thing, exceptionally soft and citrussy with a fresh Agave nose and a touch of spice. It’s the top-selling premium Reposado in Mexico and California, places where they know a bit about tequila.
Distinctive in its squat bottle, Patrón enjoys an almost cult-like following, offering a fresh but bold Silver Tequila loaded with sweet fruit, apple and citrus, and good length of peppery spice. The Reposado is richer and well-rounded, with noticeable oak and vanilla from an average of six months aging in barrels. Both make tasty Margaritas, especially in combination with Patron Spirits’ Citronge, their proprietary orange liqueur.
The Plata from Gran Centenario is rested for 28 days, making it just shy of a true reposado. This gives it a complexity well beyond most blanco, adding a touch of earth and spice to the blend. With tens months in French oak, the Reposado has even more obvious wood influence with nice vanilla and cinnamon spice showing through. Both make delightfully smooth, top-shelf mixing.
The Don Eduardo Blanco receives three distillations, resulting in a light, smooth style that makes a refreshing Margarita and also shows nicely in a straightforward gimlet. The newest and most exciting entry however is the reposado, almost as dark in color as their añejo but offering up lots of sweet vanilla, dried herbs and flowers with a finish of dusty oak and mineral.
Sauza was the very first tequila brand to hit the US. Today it’s the fastest-growing tequila brand in the world. The Sauza family of brands is traditionally distilled from blue agave and produced in the age-old way for an authentic tequila flavour. Gutsy, rebellious and charismatic — it’s no wonder they say Sauza releases the power of the outlaw in you.
The making of Tequila began about 125 years ago in the central Mexican state of Jalisco. Today, McCormick’s proprietary brands still come from this famous region. To make tequila the juice from the agave plant is extracted, fermented and distilled. The silver is then bottled clear while the gold acquires a pale gold color and mellow flavor. Perfect in mixed drinks with a lick of sale and bite of lime, this tequila is truly authentic.
JUST ADD ORANGE
Santa Teresa Rum Orange Liqueur, 40% abv
Tasting Notes: Very gentle orangey aroma, but this spirit showed obvious aging with lovely almond and oaky notes. It has more orange in the flavor with a full, creamy body and a long finish.
Margarita: Not really created for Margaritas, but we tried it anyway. The earth and oak seemed to shine through more than the orange quality, so it’s far better sipped straight.
DeKuyper Triple Sec, 15% abv
Tasting Notes: Clear and clean, with only a subtle citrus aroma, more like 7-Up than orange. It came across fresh and light on the palate, with a very lemonade-like quality and no alcohol burn. Light bodied and bright with a quick finish.
Margarita: Resulted in a refreshing, summery and light style of Margarita. One taster said “a casual socializing cocktail,” while another dubbed it, “The Key West tourist version.”
Cointreau, 40% abv
Tasting Notes: Bold orange aroma, reminiscent of candied orange peel and hard candy. Viscous and full-bodied on the palate with pronounced alcohol and sugary sweetness and very intense orange. Mixed reviews sipped straight.
Margarita: This is what Cointreau was made for. The Margarita is full-bodied and bright with all the flavors in balance. The pronounced orange stands up really well to fresh citrus and still allows the tequila to shine through.
Grand Marnier, 40% abv
Tasting Notes: Nice complexity of crème caramel and orange marmalade in the aroma. On the palate it’s wonderfully creamy with a gentle orange that seems to build with each sip. The lingering aftertaste makes this a great sipper.
Margarita: A very complex drink with a good balance of fruit and alcohol flavors. Offering a nice hint of jammy complexity in the aroma, this spirits brings all the Agave, lime and orange flavors together nicely, achieving an effortless balance.
Gran Gala, 40% abv
Tasting Notes: Comes on strong with a generous orange aroma and flavor. Rich and potent in flavor, but also accompanied by some very hot alcohol. One taster felt it had some “orange furniture polish” quality. Not incredibly refined but notable for its big flavor and lingering finish.
Margarita: In the aroma the big orange flavor is working beautifully. Despite careful measuring this drink seemed slightly tarter than the rest of the line up. With the addition of even more Gran Gala the drink achieves better balance and is that much tastier.
Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire, 40% abv
Tasting Notes: Great complexity of aroma, with lots of orange pith, accompanied by lovely honey sweetness, mint and orange blossoms. The flavor is like a clove-pierced holiday orange with layers of fruit and spice. Warm and lingering on the finish with cinnamon, spice, and creamy orange.
Margarita: The orange aromas are reserved, and the drink takes its time seducing with elegant flavors. The sweetness is also reserved, in this rich, rather tart Margarita with subtle orange flavor. Might meld well with an Añejo.
Tasting Notes: Nice and fresh, almost juicy, orange aroma follows through in the flavor. Nice secondary notes of bitter, burnt orange balance the initial sweetness. Nice body and depth with a clean finish. Could almost sip this on the rocks.
Margarita: Nicely balanced with a good depth of orange flavor from the aroma through to the finish. The liqueur seems to really subdue the acidity of the lime with its sweet and bitter balance, while offering hints of clementine to the mix.
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