It used to be my habit at the end of the week. I’d drop in at my mother’s for what I called Fiesta Friday, saying, “I hear the call of the wild margarita,” after which I’d make nachos and an accompanying pitcher of the beverage. Ah, the margarita. It’s a cocktail of simplicity, best when built around just three ingredients: tequila, triple sec, and lime juice. But because of that simplicity, it’s ideal for innumerable variations by substituting another juice for lime. It’s a cocktail for tequila lovers, each with their personal preference for the best-suited brand. But despite that preference, it’s a cocktail for those who would never drink tequila straight. Most importantly, it’s a cocktail guaranteed for mass consumption on occasions like Cinco de Mayo (commemorating the Mexican army’s defeat of the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862), but also for Mother’s Day (second only to Mimosa’s?).
History of the Margarita
The margarita’s origins are steeped in mystery and contradiction. The Café Royal Cocktail Book, published in 1937, has a recipe for a drink called a Picador with the tequila-triple sec-lime juice combo, the earliest known printed reference to a cocktail with the margarita’s base ingredients. Some say it was a variation of the Sidecar or the Brandy Daisy (the Spanish word for “daisy” is “margarita”), created in tribute to actress Rita Hayworth (who was born Margarita Carmen Cansino). Or perhaps it was in tribute to singer Peggy Lee. Or maybe it was a beverage dreamed up by socialite Margaret Sames at her home in Acapulco (there are also claims she was the first to serve the drink in a salt-rimmed glass). In any case, the original margarita was not the modern frozen drink served in a large bowl glass but a much smaller beverage served in a chilled coupe cocktail glass.
My Fiesta Fridays recipe kept to the basics: a shot of tequila (Sauza Hacienda Silver Tequila or Patrón Silver Tequila if I was feeling flush), a half shot of the ever reliable Bols triple sec, two shots of the mix (Bacardi’s Margarita Mix, mixed with water to my own taste; the recipe on the can results in a mix that’s far too sweet), and freshly squeezed lime.
But sometimes you want to leave the preparation to the professionals. And so, on a recent Friday (yes, the Fiesta Friday tradition continues), I went down to my local Mexican restaurant, La Cocina & Cantina, to chat with owner Victor Santiago. It’s a beverage he knows well.
“I would say it’s the best-seller,” he says, with La Cocina’s most popular version, the house margarita, served either blended or on the rocks. House drinks tend to be big sellers because they’re usually less expensive. But looking further down La Cocina’s menu, you’ll find the “Top Shelf Margarita” section, offering a higher quality beverage experience. This is where your journey into Margaritaville should begin.
First, the top-shelf drinks are always served on the rocks. “You enjoy more of the flavor of the tequila on the rocks,” Victor explains, especially in comparison to blended drinks; “when you crush the ice, it takes the flavor away.” Second, there’s a higher alcohol-to-mix ratio in the top shelf compared to the house margaritas. At 17 ounces, La Cocina’s Grande house margarita is twice the size of a top-shelf but with only slightly more alcohol. Conversely, with a top-shelf drink, you’ll taste more of the alcohol, not the mix.
La Cocina’s top-shelf margaritas are made of tequila, triple sec, a sweet and sour mix, and freshly squeezed lime. The choice of tequila is yours, ranging from Cuervo Gold ($6 for a shot, $9 in a margarita) to Clase Azul Reposado ($38 shot, $41 margarita). Victor advised sticking to the middle range when considering a tequila for a mixed drink, as Clase Azul Reposado is much better experienced straight.
“I would suggest El Jimador Reposado. That’s a good tequila for a margarita. Or it could be Hornitos. That has a good flavor to it.” I selected Victor’s tequila of choice, Cazadores, in a “Margarita del Oro” (“Margarita of Gold”), which had no mix at all, just the classic combination of tequila, triple sec, and lime. “More of a pure margarita,” I was told.
Oh yes. Quite a delight for the tastebuds; an adult cocktail, not a mass-produced, overly sweet concoction. I then upgraded to Don Julio Silver, another smooth favorite you can always rely on. Then Victor encouraged me to try a margarita with mezcal. I’m not usually a fan of this spirit, but why not try something new? When I learned that Victor’s mezcal of choice, Monte Alban, was out of stock, I had a margarita prepared using Mezcal El Silencio with a spicy salt rim and an orange wedge instead of lime. Mezcal is known for its smokiness, in this case nicely tempered by the lime and orange. As I sat there sipping, I thought, “I could get used to this drink….” I’ll definitely be ordering it next time.
And that’s not considering the other flavors of margaritas (La Cocina offers ten other flavors; after lime, strawberry is the most popular). Not to mention the on-the-rocks vs. blended debate (I prefer the former, though blended can be fun on a hot day). But, remember, whatever the mix, the tequila is the most important. This is why, though Patrón remains a favorite, I’m glad I discovered Mezcal El Silencio. I look forward to investigating other brands when I venture out on Fiesta Friday again. And this year, Cinco de Mayo happens to be on — a Friday. The adventure awaits!
Check out some of Gillians other cocktail coverage here and here.