Will the real Margarita please stand up?
The Margarita is perhaps the most oft quaffed cocktail in America, where people who don’t even consider themselves cocktail drinkers will still regularly order one. It’s almost a category all it’s own, millions of them served daily by the veritable “Tex-Mex Industrial Complex”, that inescapable Americanized Mexican restaurant with the same 7 ingredients served in various guises along with any variety of fruit flavored ‘rita your little heart desires. For many it’s an instant vacation in a glass, served comically large and sometimes with a bottle of beer unceremoniously overturned in it. It’s practically been made into a religion at this point, with that Messiah of Middle Aged Marga-Madness, Jimmy Buffett, leading his thirsty followers to the American Valhalla, the Cul-de-sac nirvana that is Margaritaville.
How did it come to this? Maybe if cocktails are the story of America, the Margarita is the Kardashians. An icon of phoniness, excess, silliness, and perhaps worse now, but somewhere beneath all of the sombreros, salted rims, and atomic sour mix there must certainly be something pure, something true, something beautiful. Okay, maybe not for the Kardashians, but for the Margarita, absolutely. Everybody comes from somewhere, right?
[Margarita follows the simple to remember Sour Cocktail formula]
Tequila, Orange Liqueur, and Lime. Like almost all truly classic drinks, it’s simple as can be. There are dozens of apocryphal stories about its origins, most making big claims about the men who mixed it and the women (usually named Margarita or some variant) they mixed it for. But the simplest answer and the likely truth is that Margarita is simply Spanish for Daisy, which was a popular cocktail of the late 19th and early 20th century that consisted of Brandy or Gin, Orange Liqueur, and Lime (later versions use Grenadine in place of Orange Liqueur). Margaritas were most likely first served in any number of Mexico’s border towns, to American tourists escaping prohibition, who ordered daisies and got them with Tequila, because that was simply what was around. Eventually, the drink caught on.
By December 1953, the Margarita was featured as Esquire magazine’s Cocktail of the Month, calling for an ounce of Tequila, a dash of triple sec, and the juice of half a lime, served on the rocks in a salt rimmed glass (a later addition). It’s star was on the rise. The drink helped catapult Tequila, then an almost unheard of oddity, to one of America’s favorite spirits. And though it was so abused by the years since its inception, and has yet to catch on as a real darling of the craft cocktail scene in the way that say, the Daiquiri has, there is still time to save the Margarita, renew it, and treasure it. So let’s dissect it a bit, and talk about some of our favorite tequilas and orange liqueurs that come together make some simple, dynamite traditional Margaritas. The formula we usually stick with is pretty classic: 2 ounces of Tequila, 1 ounce of Orange Liqueur, and 3/4 of an ounce of fresh squeezed lime juice.
The orange liqueur is so crucial to a Margarita, and is unfortunately too often swapped out for a cheap, artificially flavored variety, or even omitted entirely, in favor of syrup. Now there’s nothing wrong with a simple tequila sour, but to be a Margarita, the orange liqueur is what brings it all together.
Generally considered the classic choice, Cointreau is made from sweet and bitter orange peels, and as such is mostly sweet but with a significant and welcome presence of bitterness and dryness, along with some subtle spice that plays well with the orange. Very balanced.
Combier is similar to Cointreau, but with a much simpler, sweeter profile. Mostly gone are the bitterness and spice, with sweet orange dominating. It works beautifully in cocktails, but is perhaps a bit more one-note than Cointreau overall.
Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curaçao was recreated from an old 19th century formula for Curaçao, with classic cocktails in mind. It is Cognac based and features lovely notes of bitter orange, clove, and even vanilla, all with a strong dry backbone. While I do love it in any drink, when using it in a Margarita I sometimes find it’s dryness calls for a barspoon or so of Demerara or gum syrup to help prop it up and sweeten the drink.
LEOPOLD BROS. AMERICAN ORANGE LIQUEUR
Leopold Bros. American Orange Liqueur is made from a neutral spirit with a maceration of Curaçao and Bergamot oranges, giving it an aromatic, bright, and lightly bitter profile that is sweetened with Agave, though it is still fairly dry, perhaps needing some syrup support for some people’s palates.
Just because you’re mixing with it doesn’t mean you can just grab any old bottle of tequila! The Margarita’s simplicity demands that the ingredients be of true quality, and these four tequilas are all worthy of consideration on their own as lovely sippers, even if we’re cocktailing with them here.
Fruity, citrusy, and lightly herbal, the lowland made Arette Blanco is a perfect choice for a classic, light Margarita. Pair it with Combier for a sweet and zippy drink, or Cointreau for something for more full bodied, while still light and bright.
Chinaco blanco is saltier than your standard blanco, along with a pronounced minerality and notes of aloe, pear, and dill. This makes a complex and especially interesting Margarita, especially when paired with Leopold’s lush, aromatic orange liqueur.
The vegetal and earthy qualities in Cimarron blanco are kept in check by its bright and dry profile, but are still begging to be mixed in a savory Margarita. Keep it really dry and earthy with Pierre Ferrand’s Curaçao, and then have the option to sweeten it up a little by adding a touch of syrup.
The only repo at the party, Pueblo Viejo’s Reposado is aged in used Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels for 11 months, imparting some vanilla, woodiness, and green peppercorn spice to a lovely tequila with big agave flavors. Take this opportunity to pair those flavors with something big and beautiful like Leopold’s Orange Liqueur or especially Pierre Ferrand’s Curaçao with a bit of syrup.