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The Margarita

Having grown up in Southern California, I love Mexican food. Spiced meats, salsas, rich sauces, beans, rice and hand-made tortillas are made better with a fresh margarita. Unfortunately, most margaritas taste like garbage because they’re made with some sort of high fructose corn syrup abomination called margarita mix. 

All you need to make an amazing margarita is a little prep and know how. For starters, a good margarita gets its complex flavor from 100% agave tequila, a high quality orange liqueur, and fresh lime juice.

On a humorous note, I recently watched a commercial for Sauza Blue Tequila that showed how to make a Cowboy MargaritaThe ingredients included (besides Sauza Blue Tequila) limeade, light beer, and water. I laughed out loud, but my soul also died a little. No respectable margarita should ever include light beer, or water (it’s redundant anyway).

The Tequila

Tequila is an interesting liquor that most of us have come to love and hate. This is usually due to some bad experience(s) we had when we were younger and involved a massive hangover and possibly one or more misdemeanors. It has a very distinctive flavor that’s attributed to the agave plant, and is made in one place only, the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Añejo, Reposado and Blanco

There are three basic categories of quality Tequila that you will encounter: añejo, reposado, and blanco.  Which one you choose will have a dramatic effect on your margarita.

Añejo means aged. This type of tequila has been aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year. Like good wine, Scotch or Whiskey, the barrel aging affects the flavor by imposing an oak flavor, while it mellows the taste.

Reposado means rested. It too has been aged in oak, but only for a few months. Like añejo, it picks up the oak, but doesn’t have the opportunity to mellow. It’s complex but more harsh.

Blanco means white. This category of tequila is also called silver. It’s not aged, is clear (due to the lack of oak), and represents the unaffected flavor of the Agave and the distillation proces.





Which Tequila to Use

Premium añejo tequila is usually to be enjoyed from a snifter. The subtle nuances that make an oak-aged Tequila so enjoyable are lost in a margarita due to the combination of orange and lime.  Reposado tequila suffers the same problem, but since it hasn’t mellowed it can add a bitter element.

I recommend a blanco tequila as it mixes well and doesn’t overpower or add unnecessary heaviness to the cocktail.

A high quality 100% agave, blanco tequila gives a margarita a good base that you can enjoy on the nose and on the palate. My favorite for this recipe is Don Julio Blanco, which adds a smooth flavor with a hint vanilla.

Tip: you don’t need to fork out the money for a high-end tequila. Good alternatives to Don Julio are Pueblo Viejo Blanco and Lunazul Blanco, which cost less than half.  I’m not going to tell you they’re as good because they’re not, but they still makes an excellent margarita and won’t take all of your cash. My personal preference between the two is Pueblo Viejo Blanco (bonus, it’s even less expensive than Lunazul!).

Orange Liqueur

Many margarita recipes call for Triple Sec as the orange liqueur to use. It’s cheap (sub-$20 a bottle), and easy to find. However, basic Triple Sec is as subtle as a brick through a window. If you’re making pitchers of margaritas for a large group, then it’s not a bad way to go. However, if you want to make a memorable, craft margarita, there are much better options. I’ve already gone into detail about my favorite orange liqueurs and what they bring to a cocktail, so I’ll give you the short-list and how they’ll affect your margarita.

  • Grand Marnier – rich, orange cognac that will create a deep complexity and a richer mouth-feel.
  • Cointreau – not as rich as Grand Marnier and brings a more traditional flavor.
  • Patron Citronge – deep agave flavor that works well with a margarita if you want ratchet up the overall agave profile.
  • Combier – my personal preference for a traditional margarita due to its rich yet bright orange flavor.


The Secret Ingredient

A mix does not a margarita make!

The key to a respectable, crowd-pleasing margarita is fresh lime juice. Margarita mix is what most people use as a substitute. In my opinion, it’s the citrus that makes or breaks the drink. To make fresh lime juice you need only two things: limes, and something to extract the juice from said limes.

An easy way to do this is the citrus reamer. They’re cheap and really easy to use. An even easier, more effective, and more expensive alternative is the juice press.

Also, you’ll need lot’s of limes. They’re cheap, and margaritas require lots of lime juice, so don’t skimp on the quantity. Load up!

Tip: to get more juice from the lime, prior to slicing, roll it firmly between your palm and a hard surface while applying slight downward pressure. This releases some of the juice from the pulp and gets the meat of the lime ready for juicing.

Simple Syrup

The addition of simple syrup is a personal preference, and not a requirement. Simple syrup is equal parts water and sugar that’s been brought to a boil until it’s liquid sugar. You can buy it at the store, but it’s also easy to make. The addition of simple syrup will subdue the tart from the lime and give the drink a bit of extra sweetness.

A Salted Rim

A traditional margarita is served with a salted rim. Salting the rim is easy, but do not try it with standard table salt!. I recommend buying margarita salt at the store, and get one that has a shape designed for rimming a cocktail or margarita glass.

To salt the rim, take one of your lime rinds (from when you created lime juice) and run the wet part along the rim of the glass. Then dip the glass into the margarita salt.  The glass will have salt around the rim and top.

Video: How to salt a rim.

The Recipe

Salt the rim of the glass (optional) and add ice. I prefer to use a single king/square cube. Combine the ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake and double-strain into a glass and serve with a lime wedge for garnish. Double-straining will filter out any ice particles and lime pulp, which will leave your drink clean and with the perfect consistency.

Tip: for that guest who insists on a Cadillac Margarita, float a shot of Grand Marnier on top. If you plan on doing this, consider forgoing the salted rim. Personally, I like this recipe without the float. The additional shot of orange cognac will subdue the tart and refreshing elements of the drink and add a deeper orange flavor.

The Recap

The margarita is a delicious cocktail that is easy to make and fun to serve. The keys are a quality blanco tequila, a premium orange liqueur, and fresh lime juice.  Even more important is what’s not in it, namely, margarita mix.

So grab some chips and salsa, grill up some carne asada, get your margarita in hand, and…




David isn't a professional mixologist, and he doesn't play one on TV. Instead, he enjoys making craft cocktails at home for friends and family.

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