It’s easy to smile at the thought of a margarita.
“It’s the world’s favorite cocktail, and there are good reasons why,” Jeremy Bohen, mixologist and co-founder of the canned cocktail brand QNSY, told HuffPost. “The ingredients are widely available and relatively inexpensive, and it doesn’t require much in the way of tools or technique. Plus, the flavors are straightforward enough for the occasional imbiber, but still sophisticated enough to appeal to a connoisseur.”
For many people, this drink is all about good times. “Margaritas are for celebrating and getting together with friends,” said Ana Martínez, assistant director of food and beverage and agave spirits expert at Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort.
Yet as much as this is a cocktail that gives off laid-back, happy vibes, it also requires attention to detail and balance. “Creating a well-made margarita is similar to dancing the tango,” said Gabriela Abaroa, bartender at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. “The flavors are the complete opposite of one another, but they also complement each other perfectly.”
And, like every good drink, this one should keep you wanting more. “A perfect margarita should hold you in a perpetual cycle of being refreshed, while causing you to become thirsty for another one,” said Maxwell Reis, beverage director at West Hollywood, California’s Gracias Madre.
Experts prefer rocks, not blended
Our cocktail experts were firmly on team “rocks,” with none of them preferring a blended drink. “A truly well-constructed margarita becomes too diluted when blended with ice,” said food photographer, recipe developer and author Jackie Alpers.
“I definitely prefer rocks to frozen, because you get a better sense of the details when you don’t blend it into a slush,” said Eric Trueheart, co-founder of Black Yeti Beverage. “Don’t get me wrong, the slurpee margarita is a fun drink, without a doubt. But if you want to taste something complex, interesting and delicious, rocks is the best way to go.”
One easy step that too many people skip
Before you even get started, pop your glassware in the freezer. “Just one minute in a freezer will keep your cocktail as cold as when you use warmed-up plates to keep meals warm,” said Jim Wrigley, beverage manager at the Cayman Islands Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa’s Coccoloba Bar & Grill.
And pay attention to your ice
As you’re getting ready to shake your cocktail, keep in mind that another factor separating a “meh” at-home drink from a “wow” mixologist-made one is the quality of the ice you’re using. “If your ice tastes like the other things in your freezer, you’re in for a not-so-tasty surprise,” Reis said. “I don’t think most at-home drinkers realize how much of that ice turns into water that becomes a large portion of your drink. And if you’re using flimsy ice, it will melt too quickly, and you’ll wind up with a watery marg that’s not cold enough.”
Don’t worry too much about buying fancy bar equipment, because anything can be a shaker, experts said. “Shake it up in whatever’s easiest for you — a ‘official’ cocktail shaker, mason jar or blender,” said Valerie Alvarado, national portfolio agave ambassador at Pernod Ricard.
It won’t take long, we promise: “Shake it 5 to 10 seconds, depending on how vigorous you want to be,” said Lime Fresh Mexican Grill’s beverage director, Ethan Albrecht-Carrié. And then, as fun as it is to act like Tom Cruise in “Cocktail,” stop. “Don’t overshake the cocktail, or you’ll water it down,” said Anthony Aviles, director of operations at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota.
Get the right liquor
The good news is that the alcohol you use in margaritas doesn’t need to be an over-the-top brand. “Choose a quality silver tequila, but don’t go crazy on price,” Bohen said. “Aged tequila is great to sip on its own, but in my opinion, it’s out of place in a margarita.” As you’re shopping, be sure to read labels carefully. “Tequila should be 100% agave,” Abaroa said. He’s a fan of blanco tequila, noting its “definitive, clean flavor.”
The presence of agave in tequila is key, the experts said. “Any tequila that doesn’t say ‘100% agave’ is usually mixed in with other materials like syrups and extracts, so stay away from those,” said Xyza Dapal, food and beverage operations manager at Philadelphia’s Sabroso + Sorbo in The Notary Hotel. While you’re reading labels, take note of where the bottle was produced. “Tequilas from the Los Altos region, with oven-baked agaves, really bring the citrus, fruit and roasted agave flavor,” Alvarado said.
Add only the best ingredients
Since it has just a few ingredients, you don’t need to cut corners with pre-made mixers. Those bright yellow and orange concoctions, Aviles said, are akin to “tempting the ulcer gods and dancing with diabetes.”
Sweetener: Most recipes call for agave or simple syrup, and preferences varied among our experts. “Use good organic agave nectar,” Albrecht-Carrié said. “I prefer a light amber, because darker agave nectars tend to overpower and need to be diluted.” On the other hand, you’ve probably got what you need in your pantry to whip up simple syrup, if you’d rather use that. “I know some people like to use agave in margaritas, and there’s some poetry there, but I much prefer simple syrup,” Bohen said. “It really is simple to make. Use equal parts water and sugar, warmed just enough to dissolve the sugar.”
Fresh juice: “I truly believe that without fresh lime juice, margaritas lack the tartness and acid that can only be attained from limes,” said cocktail influencer Carlos Ruiz. That fresh juice, it turns out, brings more to your drink than just its liquid. “Hand-juicing the limes will introduce the delicate oils which come from the peel,” said Stuart Yurczyk, co-founder, vice president and general manager at Mixly Cocktail Co. “Citrus oils have a fantastic aroma and add depth to your cocktails.”
Once you’ve mastered the art of juicing limes, you may want to experiment with flavors by tossing in other fresh ingredients. “Adding freshly cut jalapeño, mango, strawberry, avocado or even cilantro will elevate your margarita,” Alvarado said.
Salt: Whether you’re a salted-rim lover or hater, you can find a mixologist who shares your views. On the “pro” side, Wrigley is a believer. “Good salt is essential,” he said. “We use Maldon salt for the classics and homemade spicy salt, using local peppers, for our Spicy Margarita. Another fantastic element is Gusano salt, a Mexican salt using the ‘worm,’ a grub that feeds on ripe agaves. And we house-smoke salt, using local logwood, for our Mezcal Margaritas.”
But not everyone is pro-salt. According to Carlos Kronen, founder and executive director of The Bartender Company, a mobile bartending service, it’s not a good idea. “Salt kills your palate, so a salted rim is only recommended when using low-end tequila,” he said.
Somewhere in the middle of the salt debate is Alicia Perry, general manager at San Diego’s Polite Provisions. “When it comes to a salt rim, I always ask about the customer’s preference, because salt isn’t for everyone,” she said. “I personally prefer a partial salt rim, so I have a choice with each sip.”
Garnishes: Use fresh citrus twists or wedges, fresh peppers or anything else you like. Perhaps try checking out local ingredients to make a margarita truly “yours.” Alpers mentioned a unique garnish she enjoyed at Tucson’s El Crisol mezcal bar. “It was finished with a dried lime slice and creosote leaves,” she said. “Those leaves come from a bush native to Tucson that releases a sweet smell whenever it rains — or when it’s floating on top of a drink. It was a perfect expression of the Tucson desert in every way.”
Spicy touches: Once you’ve mastered the basics, you might want to incorporate other elements, like heat. “I remember the first time I had a spicy margarita, and it changed my entire understanding of what a margarita can be,” Yurczyk said. “I’m a Midwest native, so it didn’t take long for sweat to begin beading up around my nose and cheekbones, but I was addicted. I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but the tequila’s smoothness, lime juice’s acidity and orange liqueur’s sweetness were practically begging for the addition of spice.”
“I was on my honeymoon a looong time ago in Puerto Vallarta and was served a pineapple chile margarita,” said Dora Stone, founder of the vegan Mexican recipe blog Dora’s Table. She remains a fan of margarita heat, and her blog includes a popular recipe for a Spicy Hibiscus Ice Margarita. Another tip from Stone: “Add candied jalapeños or chile powder on the rim, like the ever-so-popular mango chamoy margarita.”