Food & Drink

Margarita Recipe Taste Test: Are Expensive Tequilas & Orange Liqueurs Worth The Price?

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America doesn’t give the margarita the respect it deserves.

Most margaritas served in the States are treacly, salty, gooey abominations: 24 ounce swamps of half-melted ice sweetened with corn syrup and tinted bright green with food coloring. As a result, most Americans think of margaritas as harbingers of hangovers, love handles and ill-advised hookups. A guilty pleasure at best.

Yet the margarita is fundamentally a great cocktail. Though it seems to have been invented as recently as 1948, its name, Spanish for “daisy,” points to its kinship with the venerable branch of cocktails just as old as the martini or the Manhattan. More importantly, properly-made margaritas taste great: tart, crisp, drinkable and complex. The perfect platform for tequila and the perfect cocktail for a summer afternoon. And, of course, Cinco de Mayo.

We at HuffPost do respect margaritas. But we normally make them using cheap ingredients. We’ve always heard that you shouldn’t splurge on expensive ingredients for cocktails, because they don’t really affect the taste once they’re all mixed together and shaken. We were dubious though. Everyone agrees that you can tell the difference between cheap and expensive spirits when you sip them alone. Why should cocktails be any different?

So we conducted a little taste test, as we are wont to do. We gathered up six different types of tequila — half expensive, half cheap — and three different types of orange liqueur. Then we mixed them into 18 margaritas, all using the classic margarita ratio of two parts tequila to one part orange liqueur to 3/4 part lime juice. And we had a large panel of HuffPost employees, on and off the Taste team, tell us what they thought.

Reading through their responses, one thing became abundantly clear: expensive margaritas don’t taste better than cheap ones. There was essentially no correlation between a margarita’s price and the rating tasters gave it.

Indeed, one of our highest rated margaritas, the one made with Sauza tequila and DeKuyper triple sec, was the very cheapest we tried, at just $1.72 a glass. Meanwhile, one of the most expensive margaritas we mixed, one made with Avion tequila and Cointreau that cost $4.99 a glass, fell at the very bottom of our results. (For each, we calculated the total cost, in New York City, of two ounces of tequila, one ounce of orange liqueur and a lime that yields 3/4 ounce of juice.)

We didn’t even find very striking trends across individual brands. No one tequila or orange liqueur produced margaritas that were rated significantly higher than any other.

But that doesn’t mean that all the margaritas were the same. There was actually a huge range in people’s responses to each margarita, despite the fact that they all used the same ratio of ingredients. It turns out that the factor that makes the biggest difference in a margarita’s taste is the pairing of tequila and orange liqueur. Strong-tasting tequilas (like Sauza and Avion) call for strong-tasting orange liqueurs (like DeKuyper triple sec), while mild-tasting tequilas (like Milagro and Tres Generaciones) call for mild-tasting orange liqueurs (like Cointreau). To get respect, in other words, margaritas need balance.

Click through below to find out our favorite and least favorite margarita recipes, so you can be well prepared next time you make a cold one.

The Tequilas
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Here are the six brands of tequila we tested, arranged in price order. From left to right, they are: Tres Generaciones ($47), Patron ($47), Avion ($43), Hornitos ($25), Milagro ($22), Sauza ($20)
The Orange Liqueurs
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Here are the three kinds of orange liqueur we tested. From left to right, they are: Cointreau ($32), DeKuyper Triple Sec ($7), Patron Citronge ($20)
Tres Generaciones + Citronge = Highly Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$4.83 Tasters Said: "Loved it! Goes down smoothly." "A good amount of sweetness." "More complex than the others." "Tequila stood out too much." Final Thoughts: This was the best performing of all the "expensive" margaritas, so if you want to go classy this Cinco de Mayo, this is the way to do it. It makes a margarita that leans sweet.
Milagro + Cointreau = Highly Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$3.33 Tasters Said: "I could taste the lime in this one!" "Tastes balanced." "A more complicated taste." "Citrus overtones but doesn't overpower the tequila." Final Thoughts: This is a very good all-purpose combo of tequila and orange liqueur; it feels special without being too pricy. It's easier drinking than some of the others on this list. It leans floral.
Sauza + DeKuyper = Highly Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$1.72 Tasters Said: "That's a great margarita. Very well balanced." "Tequila doesn't overpower the rest but it is still present." "Had a different sort of zing to it." "Pretty standard." Final Thoughts: This was the very cheapest tequila we tested, so it seems surprising that it did so well. But two things are working in its favor. Most people drink cheap margaritas most often, so its taste was likely familiar to our panel. And these two brands are designed with margaritas in mind; they've been developed, over many years, to work well together. In any case, they make a margarita on the spicy, big-flavored side. Not subtle.
Patron + Cointreau = Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$5.30 Tasters Said: "Heavy on the tequila, but I like it." "Pretty well-balanced, but definitely a little too sweet." "Orange-y!"
Avion + Citronge = Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$4.51 Tasters Said: "I could really taste the tequila." "Would be good if you wanted to make super strong drinks." "Complex. Kind of smoky." "Feels unbalanced." "Hits you at first and then simmers down for the remaining sips. Very 'rindy.'"
Patron + Citronge = Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$4.83 Tasters Said: "Pretty nicely balanced." "Really sweet." "This is a sharp drink. Tastes like a fake orange." "Too strong."
Hornitos + DeKuyper = Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$2.02 Tasters Said: "Very sweet." "Don't hate it. Don't love it." "A little salty, good." "Spicy."
Sauza + Cointreau = Not Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$2.78 Tasters Said: "Tastes like very astringent vodka. And not much else." "A little sweet and bland." "Weak and bitter, not very exciting." "Woo! That tequila is rough tasting!"
Milagro + Citronge = Not Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$2.87 Tasters Said: "Bland." "Made me cringe a bit. Not a fan." "Can barely taste the alcohol."
Avion + Cointreau = Worst In Show
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$4.99 Tasters Said: "Strikingly alcoholic. Tastes unbalanced because the tequila is so rough." "Needs more sweetness." "Made me gag." "Salty even without salt, maybe smoky... mostly gross." Final Thoughts: This is among the most expensive recipes we tried, but it got a shockingly negative reception from our tasters. They liked Cointreau fine on its own, and they liked Avion fine on its own, but together? Not at all. The problem could be that, according to most tasters, Avion was among the most aggressive-tasting, alcohol-forward tequilas in the lot. And Cointreau tastes milder than Citronge or DeKuyper. So Avion's powerful flavor just barreled over Cointreau's subtle one.
Hornitos + Cointreau = Not Recommended
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
Price Per Margarita:$3.07 Tasters Said: "I find this really bitter. Most just getting lime juice." "Not nice. Lots of banana-y off-tastes."
A Scatterplot of the Results
As you can see from this scatterplot, there was essentially no correlation between the price of a margarita and the average score our tasters gave it. Expensive margaritas were slightly more likely to get average ratings above five -- but one of the most expensive, the one made using Avion and Cointreau, scored the very lowest of all the margaritas tested.
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