Welcome to Show Me the Proof, a column where we pose big questions to the booze world and get drinks experts to argue the finer points. In our second column, we’re tackling the controversial question, “How can we improve the margarita?” (and Happy National Margarita Day if you’re reading this on Feb. 22).
It’s easy to love a margarita: Simple to make, it’s also a crowd-pleasing mix of tangy, sweet and (in some cases) salty. And, in this past year of to-go cocktails, the drink’s been ubiquitous on menus.
I just wish the drink was … better.
I don’t blame the cocktail itself. If made properly — good tequila, fresh lime juice, strict ingredient proportions, etc. — the margarita is refreshing and provides a nice balanced tipple.
But think about all the terrible margaritas you’ve had. They’re either using mixes (unnecessary), adding in unwanted flavors (please take away your bananas, tomatoes and peach concoctions) or not taking care with the measurements.
Thankfully, the margarita is an endlessly versatile drink, so for every terrible idea, there’s an equally fantastic (and simple) alternative. “The recipe is flexible enough to make any minor variations a sure thing,” says Justin Lane Briggs of The Cabinet, an agave-centric cocktail bar in NYC.
With that in mind, a few very simple hacks to improve your margarita:
Hack #1: Go micro
“Honestly, the very straight-forward margarita recipe is typically too dry for most people’s palates,” says Briggs. He suggests some very small (barspoon-sized) edits to the classic drink.
2 oz Tequila
.5 oz Dry Curacao
.75 oz lime juice
One barspoon simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water)
Add a pinch of salt or a few drops of saline solution. But cut back on the salty rim. Says Briggs: “I prefer to give a half-rim of salt at the most; I find the first salt lick delightful but it can become a chore by the end of the drink. The best part of the salt is when it drips into your drink, seasoning it and making the flavors pop.”
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Hack #2: Hit the Garden
“Add something fresh from the garden or the produce aisle,” says Briggs. “Try muddling some slices of cucumber before you shake your margarita, or add a couple small slices of fresh mint and hot pepper together.”
Hack #3: Raid Your Candy Drawer
“This version is called Fajitas because when you place the Pop Rocks on dehydrated pineapple, they sizzle,” as a rep for The Joseph Hotel in Nashville told us. The mezcal also adds just a touch of smokiness.
Via The Joseph Nashville
1.5 oz Casamigos Blanco
.5 oz Illegal Mezcal
1 oz lime
1 oz charred pineapple syrup
Combine ingredients in tin with ice, shake and strain over new ice. Garish with a citrus salt rim and a dehydrated pineapple piece with Pop Rocks on top.
Hack #4: Mix Up Your Tequilas
“My ideal margarita splits the tequila base between silver tequila and reposado tequila,” says Jake Barnett, the co-owner and operator of Old Fashioned Beverage & Hospitality in Kansas City, MO. “This offers the best of both worlds: refreshing, crisp vegetal and floral notes from the blanco, and warm vanilla and caramel from the oak-rested reposado.” Barnett also adds a very small measure of simple syrup for mouthfeel. “Cointreau and other full-proof orange liqueurs tend to be a bit thin because of their alcohol content.”
Hack #5: Go Non-Alcoholic
A rep for the booze-free spirit brand Seedlip tells us this is their most popular recipe. The agave syrup keeps the flavor profile of a margarita consistent, and using SL’s Grove (with notes of Mediterranean orange, lemon peel, lemongrass and ginger) adds some new fruity and spicy elements.
2 oz Seedlip Grove 42
1 tbsp agave syrup
.5 oz Fresh Lime Juice
Run a lime wedge around the outside of the rim of your glass, then roll the rim in salt. Add ingredients with ice to a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain over fresh cubes of ice into your slated tumbler. Garnish with a lime wheel.
Hack #6: Change your sweetener
“Honey is a great way to connect local flavors,” says Kim Haasarud, Proprietor of Garden Bar PHX / The Cocktail Collaborative in Phoenix. “And various varietals can enhance aromatics in spirits. Alfalfa honey, for example, has some grassy hay notes which can enhance the grassiness flavors of agave in tequila.”
A Tequila Buzz
2 oz Casa Noble Reposado
1 oz lime juice
1 oz honey water *
*Honey Water (2 parts honey — alfalfa honey and raspberry honey are amazing — and 1 part hot water. Stir until dissolved.)
Shake in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into an iced glass. Top with lime wedge. Salt optional.
Hack #7: Find Other Ways To Add Smoke
There’s a good chance your margarita contains Cointreau — they’re also part of a margarita kit at The Cocktail Courier that delivers a really nice, classic marg to your door if you don’t feel like doing bar work. The brand also suggests one altered recipe, however, that’s a real conversation starter.
Smoked Blueberry Margarita
1 oz Cointreau
2 oz Mezcal
1 oz fresh lime juice
5-7 smoked blueberries
Place washed berries on a cookie sheet and smoke on the grill for 15 minutes. Add berries and Cointreau to tin and gently muddle. Add remaining ingredients with ice and shake. Fine strain over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with speared roasted blueberry and rosemary sprig.
Hack #8: Just Bring the Heat
Talking habaneros here. “We standardize our heat level by creating a sugar syrup into which we steep fresh habanero chiles until the syrup is powered-up with their fragrance and incendiary heat,” says Torrence O’Haire, a mixologist at The Gage in Chicago. “We combine that with both tequila and mezcal for added smokiness, then lots of fresh lime to quench the fire. Finally, we garnish it with a rim of powdered kashmiri chile, which adds a mild, earthy warmth. You end up with a complex, balanced cocktail.”
The Gage’s Habañero Margarita
1 oz blanco tequila
.5 oz mezcal
2 oz fresh lime juice
.5 oz orange curaçao
1 oz habanero-infused syrup*
Shake all ingredients with ice and pour into glass rimmed with mild powdered chile mixed with a bit of salt. * To make the habanero syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup of boiling water and 2 chopped habanero chiles. Stir gently until sugar is dissolved, and let steep until it reaches an appropriate level of heat/flavor (start with 15 minutes and taste).
Some other hacks:
9. “Add fresh herbs to add another layer of flavor. I would muddle in either basil or rosemary to add a fresh element.” — Camille Wilson, The Cocktail Snob
10. “Replace 1/2 oz of tequila with 1/2 oz of of green chartreuse, which is my favorite spirit.” — Chris Spear, Chefs Without Restaurants
11. “Add a hint of fresh orange juice and an orange slice. It brings out the flavor in the tequila as well as the other ingredients.” — Andrea Correale, Elegant Affairs Caterers
12. “I love to add lavender syrup to a Margarita in summer months and switch the lime juice to lemon. During the holiday season, I make my “Christmas Margarita” which uses both red and green New Mexican chile.” — Natalie Bovis, TheLiquidMuse.com
13. “Do a split base of mezcal and tequila to add a little smoke.” — Randi Densford, beverage director of Barn8 Restaurant & Bourbon Bar
14. “Substitute simple syrup with agave syrup. Agave makes the drink more dynamic and complements the tequila.” — Fiona Lee, mixologist, @cocktailswithmenyc
15. Add a few dashes of Scrappy’s Firewater bitters to spice it up a little. — Natasha Mesa, Bit House Collective (Portland, OR)
16. Swap out the Triple Sec or Curacao for a different fruit liqueur, like a Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur or a blood orange liqueur like Amara Rossa or Solerno. Or try something a bit more unusual, like a good mure (blackberry) or my personal recent favorite, passionfruit liqueur. — Justin Lane Briggs, The Cabinet
17. Make a no-agave version, which can be more eco-friendly to boot, as agave shortage is an ongoing issue and also lack of transparency in nectar production. My favorite is to substitute tequila for an artisanal sotol such as Coyote, and replace the agave nectar with Domaine Sante from California – both of which are going to add extra firepower. — Jeff Josenhans, InterContinental San Diego
18. In place of tequila, use mezcal and add a little fresh watermelon juice. It’s cool and refreshing, but with a smokey flavor.” — Lauren Strasser, Bouquet Restaurant (Covington, KY)
19. “Add a little bit of spicy liquor, like Ancho Reyes.” — Leopoldo Manzo, Lead Food & Drink Enthusiast at Canopy by Hilton Cancun La Isla
20. I like to replace sweeteners with smoked banana pepper reduction for a little bit of a spicy kick or sometimes a hint of Chinola (passion fruit). — Ashley Martinez, Serena at Moxy South Beach
21. Mix fresh lemon juice with the fresh lime juice at a 1:1 ratio. I find lemon juice lends a sweetness which balances out the tartness of the lime perfectly. — Katy Allen, Restaurant Manager at Gaylord Opryland Resort Solario Cantina
22. In the summer, I love to add 1-part grapefruit soda, serve it over ice in a tall glass – giving it a more refreshing taste and experience. — Carmine De Riso, Assistant Director of Food and Beverage at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta
23. Add a splash of fresh grapefruit juice with a Tajin rim for tartness with a mix of spicy and salty flavor. — Sheryl Ishizaki, Director of Food & Beverage at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Nigel
24. Batch your margarita recipe and add the water that would normally be added by shaking to control the balance and dilution for every serve. I also remove the curacao and focus on the agave and allowing the tequila to shine. — Andy Shannon, former bars manager at The Punch Room at the London EDITION and co-founder of Candra
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