Margarita is the Spanish word for daisy. If you dig into the family tree of cocktails, you’ll find that the Margarita is the granddaughter of an older drink called the Daisy and another called a Brandy Crusta. The Daisy has undergone a lot of permutations over the years, but originally, it was similar to what we would today call a Sour: base liquor, lemon juice, simple syrup. Usually it would have soda water added, and it would be served in a large glass full of shaved or cracked ice and garnished with fresh seasonal fruit and mint. The Brandy Crusta was also a precursor of the Sidecar. It combined brandy, lemon juice, and sugar, and it was served in a glass with a sugar rim and a long spiral of lemon peel. When you bring in tequila as the base liquor, substitute lime for the lemon, and add salt on the rim instead of sugar, you have a Margarita.
Your basic Margarita is a sweet, tart, refreshing summer drink. The combination of lime juice, sugar, and tequila is a classic that even cocktail luddites appreciate, especially if it’s made fresh and with quality ingredients. Adding triple sec or Grand Marnier is the traditional way to bring a touch of class to the drink, and it does add both richness and sweetness, but it isn’t always necessary. Add salt on the rim, or not. Add a lime wheel as a garnish, or not. You can mess with it in a million different ways, and it’s still good.
Step 1: Selecting a tequila
First of all, you should NEVER EVER use a tequila that you wouldn’t drink on its own. ALWAYS use a tequila that is made with 100% blue agave—it should be printed clearly on the label. Don’t use Cuervo. If you like Patron, okay, but don’t put it in my Margarita. Our preference is Sauza Blue, but there are a lot of other good brands out there. Just read the label.
Traditionally, you’ll use a blanco or unaged tequila. To step it up, look for one that says reposado or anejo on the label. These are tequilas that have been barrel aged. Reposado means “rested” and indicates that the tequila has been aged for a shorter amount of time, between two months and one year. Anejo means “old” and indicates that the tequila has been aged at least a year. Extra Anejo means it has been aged at least three years. An aged tequila will be smoother and more complex because of the flavoring it gets from the barrel. Avoid “gold” tequila, as this is usually just a blanco tequila with coloring added to make it look aged.
Step 2: Selecting citrus
The citrus in a Margarita is typically lime because limes are popular in Mexican cuisine, and they naturally go well together. However, you can substitute lemon, orange, or grapefruit, or use a combination of them. As long as it’s freshly squeezed, it will be good. One caveat: because orange juice is so sweet, I would always combine it with a more tart citrus juice to offset the sweetness a little bit.
Step 3: Selecting a liqueur
What restaurants call a “top shelf” Margarita will have triple sec such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier added to the basic recipe. Try using St. Germaine (an elderflower liqueur) or Damiana liqueur (if you can find it) to add flowery herbal notes. For a spicy variation, use Domain de Canton (ginger liqueur). Chartreuse can also be used to good effect. Most of these can be a sub for the triple sec or can be added to the triple sec. It’s a matter of how sweet you want your drink to be. We’ve also had good luck using Cathead Honeysuckle vodka.
Step 4: Selecting a syrup
There are literally thousands of specialty syrups you can buy or make at home. We’ve done black peppercorn syrup, hot pepper syrup, cardamom syrup, and lots of others. You can infuse simple syrup with just about any kind of herb, spice, or seasonal fruit. Or don’t use any syrup and pick a second liqueur from the section above.
Step 5: Selecting your salt
Not everybody like the salt on the rim of a Margarita, but it you do, this is another area where you can play around. Experiment with combining salt with ground herbs or spices. If you like a spicy Margarita, you can add a little cayenne to your salt mixture. Many grocery stores have specialty salts that have already been infused with different flavors. Some favorites we found in the past were rosemary salt and hickory smoked salt. For an interesting variation, instead of doing a salt rim, just add a small pinch of salt to the drink itself.
Step 6: Selecting your garnish
Take some inspiration from the Margarita’s ancestor the Daisy and add some fresh seasonal fruit or herbs. In the spring and summer, we especially like to pull herbs from our backyard herb garden and use them to spruce up a cocktail. Sage, mint, or rosemary can work well in a Margarita and looks pretty in a glass, especially for guests. Before garnishing with an herb, clap the herbs between your hands to help bring out the oils and aromas. “Spanking” the herbs like this is essential for getting the most out of them.
A lot of these tricks would apply to cocktails other than a Margarita, of course, especially similar citrus-based drinks like Gimlets and Daiquiris. Use something from each section and make your Margarita something truly special.