Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in our Cocktail Queries series in the last few years at Paste, answering commonly asked questions about making home cocktails, as well as diving deep into individual spirits to explore topics like the best bourbon under $30, or defining the house styles of iconic Kentucky whiskey distilleries. Now, we’re drilling down on the “cocktail” in the title with this subseries on individual, classic cocktails, in order to answer the question of what makes for a great example of one of these drinks. What’s the key to a great old fashioned, for instance? A great Manhattan? A great daiquiri? A great negroni? We’ll explore them all, and then some.
If the old fashioned is the instantly iconic cocktail one would associate with bourbon, or a martini is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions gin, then surely the margarita would be the almost universal first thought when it comes to applying tequila, at least in the U.S. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that tequila is more strongly and intimately associated with the margarita than any other spirit is with a single cocktail—the two are inextricably linked in the American pop cultural psyche at this point. If someone produces a bottle of tequila at a backyard BBQ, it’s almost a certainty that margaritas are soon to follow.
The drink itself is of course a thing of elemental, simple beauty—three or four core ingredients, no muss, no fuss. But like so many other classic cocktails, the quality of the margarita you ultimately make is contingent upon how well you truly understand those ingredients, which ones you choose, and the ratios/method with which you prepare the drink. As with so many other simple drinks, there can be more to a well-made margarita than meets the eye.
Note: We’re going to be talking about the classic, on-the-rocks, non-frozen margarita in this piece. Or in other words, the original margarita.
Here’s the interesting thing about the “classic” margarita recipe—there’s actually a fair amount of disagreement about whether the drink should have any additional sweetening, as supplied by simple syrup or agave syrup/nectar. In very traditional recipes, such as the one from the International Bartenders Association, the drink contains only tequila, orange liqueur (triple sec) and lime juice, without any simple syrup or additional sweetener. Many other recipes, however, will include a little bit of simple syrup, and there are good reasons for this—they may, for instance, be using orange liqueurs that are less sweet. With that in mind, here is a basic starting point for a great margarita.
— 2 oz blanco or reposado tequila (more on this shortly)
— .5 oz orange liqueur/curacao
— 1 oz lime juice
— .5 oz simple syrup/agave syrup
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake thoroughly. Strain into a rocks glass over plenty of additional ice—either in large cubes or crushed ice. Potential garnishes include a wedge or wheel of lime, and you may optionally apply salt, either by salting the rim or adding a pinch of salt to the drink.
Many margs today are brightly colored frozen drinks filled with artificial fruit flavors. That’s not what we’re discussing here today.
To make your margaritas, you’re quite obviously going to need tequila … although if you enjoy the more smoky tones of mezcal, you can easily switch over for a “mezcalita” without changing anything else in this essay.
Tequila is the heart and soul of a margarita, even moreso than the base spirits of most cocktails. It is essential that the flavor of the tequila shines through, which means that the ideal tequila for a truly great margarita is typically a bolder and more vivacious one than the bland Cuervos of the world. You may be interested in tequila with brighter, zesty citrus flavors, or you may prize ones with more depth of herbaceous bite, but the most important thing is that they be assertive. Higher proofs no doubt help here, as the goal is to avoid a margarita that simply tastes like watered down lime juice and orange liqueur. A truly great margarita should be alive with the grassy, mineral, herbaceous, free-wheeling spirit of tequila, with just enough balance from its other elements to not seem overtly boozy. All in all, though, making an insipid margarita that only vaguely tastes like tequila is one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the drink.
As for whether it should be blanco or aged tequila, basically all the purist recipes call for unaged blanco tequila, which tends to have the brighter, more punchy and herbaceous flavor. There are many drinkers, however, who actually prefer the somewhat gentler and oak-accented flavor of lightly aged reposado tequila in their margaritas. I can go either way—both blanco and reposado make for a nice change of pace.
You have some options, when it comes to the “orange citrus” part of the margarita, and those options affect how you’ll want to make the rest of the drink. Many “basic” margaritas made at home are produced with relatively low-ABV, generic bottles of triple sec—essentially watered down neutral spirits that are intensely flavored with artificial citrus flavoring and tons of sugar. To some, this may be an integral part of their margarita experience, but we’re trying to do better than the likes of Applebees here if we can. For that reason, I’d recommend you get some actual, quality curacao.
Now, if you choose a product labeled as “dry curacao,” this will be a relatively dry and more bitter orange liqueur, giving a more genuine orange flavor that suggests a bit of the orange pith as well. Making a margarita this way, you may want to use some simple syrup in the recipe to replace a bit of the lost sweetness, while retaining the more genuine orange flavor. There are also curacao brands that naturally sweeter, such as Grand Marnier, which you may find is sweet enough to not require any additional simple syrup. As with many cocktails, your best bet is to mix up a few variations and see which one strikes the best balance for your palate.
Basically everything I wrote about lime juice in our essay on the perfect daiquiri also applies here, as lime juice is very important to the overall flavor profile of both cocktails. As I said before:
Practically any margarita recipe you will ever see will go out of its way to stress that you should be using “freshly squeezed” lime juice, but I will be honest—despite the advantages of freshly squeezed juice, I almost always make these drinks with store-bought lime juice kept in the refrigerator.
There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, the store-bought lime juice is much more consistent—it always tastes the same, and has the same relative level of acidity, which makes it easy to dial it in. Limes that you actually squeeze yourself, on the other hand, will vary greatly in how sweet or sour you perceive them to be. This can be lessened to some degree if you’re juicing many limes together, as a bar would be when preparing its ingredients for the day, but in your own home kitchen you’re unlikely to be juicing more than one or two at a time. This means that if you do happen to have fresh limes on hand, and you want to use them, you simply have to be a bit more careful in confirming that the drink’s level of acidity in particular is correct. As for how tart a margarita should be, the answer is “moderately.” Some home cocktail makers do make the mistake of adding too much lime juice, thinking that it may help smooth down the rougher edges of their tequila, but too much lime can make the drink aggressively tart and unpalatable, making it feel caustic on your palate. In general, if the margarita is in any way difficult to drink because of the level of tartness, then it’s too acidic.
As already mentioned several times above, simple syrup is not featured in every margarita recipe, but it often helps to balance out the drink and acts as an X-factor that makes all the other flavors pop. If you’re using sticky-sweet, bottom shelf triple sec—or even worse, “margarita sour mix”—you’ll almost certainly want to avoid adding any additional sweetness. If you’re simply using quality tequila, curacao and lime juice, however, half an ounce of simple syrup can often be the difference between a margarita that tastes “fine,” and one that tastes great.
For the sake of regional consistency, you will often see calls to make margaritas with agave syrup/agave nectar instead of regular simple syrup, but in truth the difference is negligible and not something the average person would ever notice. Feel free to use whichever kind of simple syrup you have on hand, or whip up a homemade batch yourself, considering that it only takes a few minutes.
Salt is another X-factor when it comes to the flavor of a margarita, and an element that some embrace while others ignore completely. We’ll be upfront on our views here: The salted rim is pretty pointless. It’s a cliche, and many people will love it, but if you want to introduce a salted dimension to the drink, trying to get some of the salt into your mouth during each sip by licking it off the rim of the glass is hardly the rational way to do it. This is simply too imprecise a method to really build a cocktail that makes sense.
If you want to have a bit of salt presence in the drink—and I think it nicely complements the already saline nature of the tequila flavor—then simply add a pinch of salt to the shaker with the rest of the ingredients. It’s a far easier and less clumsy way to handle the ingredient.
As anyone who has visited a standard, Americanized Mexican restaurant in their lives is likely to know, the margarita’s popularity is rivaled only by its adaptability. You can tweak a margarita with practically any other flavor or dimension, and it tends to work out pretty well. The core of the drink is just so solid that it welcomes many different types of riffs.
— One of the easiest additions you can fool around with in a margarita is cocktail bitters. Want to add some aromatic spice? You can always go with Angostura. Pushing the citrus forward even more? Orange, lemon, lime or grapefruit bitters can all work. Bitters that pair well with mezcal? How about some mole or chocolate bitters? Or celery bitters for an herbaceous boost? They can all work, so it’s worth experimenting with whatever you have.
There’s a rainbow of potential variations within the world of the margarita.
— The margarita also welcomes other fruit additions like a champ, and store bought juices or nectars can be added in small or large quantities to put a new spin on things. Try taking the margarita in a tropical direction with passionfruit juice or syrup, or mango nectar.
— The margarita also loves spice, which should be obvious from the fact that it’s so often paired with spicy Mexican dishes. Adding heat to the drink can be as simple as muddling a few slices of jalapeno pepper in the shaker before shaking the drink with them, or you can also add heat via spicy flavored cocktail syrups or even a bit of hot sauce.
— Finally, although the classic “margarita glass” is an icon that will be forever associated with this drink, we’ll simply mention that the stemmed, wide glass can be more than a little unwieldy—in addition to the fact that they take up a stupid amount of space in your glassware cabinet. The vast majority of our margaritas are consumed in regular old lowball/rocks/double old fashioned glasses, and trust us when we say that they work just fine. A margarita is supposed to be a simple pleasure—why worry about how it looks, when the only important thing is how it tastes?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.