One of the most popular hot-weather cocktails in the United States, and the single most popular tequila-based beverage in the world, is the ubiquitous and much-maligned margarita. For although it is now more likely to be found looking slushy and fruity and thoroughly soulless, the margarita is actually an urbane, delicious and refreshing classic cocktail that has been wooing its devotees for many decades.
Part of the reason for the margarita’s success is because it is so food friendly. The natural interaction between sweet, sour and acid in the margarita helps cut right through rich and spicy foods, while the alcohol content helps mask bland and tasteless foods.
Another aspect of its popularity is that its base ingredient, tequila, is commonly thought of as particularly wild and feisty and so is therefore cool — and yet it is rendered thoroughly palatable in a margarita.
Indeed, when properly balanced, the margarita’s simple mix of tequila, orange-flavored liqueur and lime juice tames the punchy, herbal, floral, mouth-puckering taste of tequila, and elevates the sweet and sour components to greater complexity. At its best, the margarita is a strong, bright, tangy and timeless elixir that achieves a magical balance of sweetness, tartness and acidity.
Like many great classic cocktails, exactly who created the margarita, much less when, remains elusive. The drink is essentially a variation of a time-tested cocktail formula known as sours. Sours are a family of cocktails, like the sidecar or the cosmopolitan, that are based on a simple alchemy of spirit, cordial and citrus juice.
As with all cocktails, however, the key to mixing a great margarita is to find the right proportion and balance between the tequila, orange-flavored liqueur (triple sec or Cointreau) and lime juice.
Tequila is a type of mezcal made from a fermented mash of the pinas, or hearts, of the Agave Azul Tequilana Weber species of the agave plant. In making a margarita, only use tequilas that have “100 percent blue agave” on the label.
In making classic margaritas, you should ideally use a blanco or plata (white or silver) style tequila; the differences in tequila styles have to do with aging — except for the oro, or gold, tequilas which simply have colorants and flavorings added and which can pose kashrut issues. Blanco tequila generally has a nice kick to it that will add much to the drink’s final character. Good brands for this abound, including Don Julio, Patron, Herradura, El Tesoro and Chinaco.
Here are two classic margarita cocktail recipes to try.
The Margarita: In a cocktail shaker with hard cracked ice, combine 1½ to 2 ounces of tequila (depending on desired strength), 1 ounce of quality triple sec (like Cointreau), and ½ to ¾ ounce of fresh lime juice. Shake until the outside of the shaker is frosty and beaded with condensation, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.Most traditionally, though I rarely bother, the glass should have its rim salted: Rub a lime wedge along the outside rim of the glass, and then dip the glass into a saucer of kosher salt. Just make sure the salt stays on the outside of the glass. You can use a lime wedge to garnish, if you must (though I advise against anything that might throw off the balance).
For those who love this sort of thing:
The Frozen Margarita: When made well, this is actually quite good — especially for those of us who still enjoy the occasional Slurpee. In a blender, combine 1½ ounces of tequila, 1 ounce of quality triple sec (like Cointreau), 1 ounce fresh lime juice, and 2 ounces simple syrup or 2 heaping tablespoons of sugar, and a big handful of cracked ice. Blend until desired consistency is reached, and then pour into a large goblet or margarita glass — rimmed with salt if you like. L’chaim!