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10 Beverage Upgrades: The Modern-Day Margarita The coolest cocktail explores new flavor frontiers

Bold flavors, signature ingredients and add-ins define the classic margarita. New interpretations riff on the traditional version.
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A 1953 issue of Esquire magazine featured the margarita as its “Drink of the Month,” even though it had only been introduced in the United States a few years earlier. The drink came straight from its roots in Jalisco, Mexico, where the blue agave plants are grown. Almost 20 years later, it started to appear in frozen form, and it later lost its integrity altogether to those syrupy slushy machines and mass-produced ingredients. The good news is that the most popular cocktail in America has returned to its traditional roots in recent years, appearing as versions that hearken back to its Jalisco heritage—all the while presenting a modern profile.

Here are 10 ways the beloved beverage is being reinvented on cocktail menus today.

Authentic

The margarita is simply a tequila version of the pre-Prohibition cocktail Daisy (or “margarita” in Spanish). It is two parts liquor with one part lime and one part sweet, such as grenadine, liqueur or sugar, served over cracked or crushed ice. A traditional margarita is a 2:1:1 blend of 100 percent blue agave, freshly squeezed lime juice and orange liqueur on ice, meant to both chill and dissipate the harsh top notes in all three. Aficionados agree that the traditional recipe is still the best.

Menu Examples

Classic El Vez
Ranchero Blanco, lime, agave, lime salt
—El Vez, New York
La Purista
Pueblo Viejo 104 Proof Blanco, Damiana, lime, agave
—Barrio Mexican Kitchen & Bar, Seattle

Salted

When we think about salt in a margarita, it is all about that crusty rim, but salt is a remarkable modifier to the drink itself. Adding a pinch of coarse, natural salt as you build it to balance any syrupy sweetness can highlight the complex flavors of the tequila, as well as the lime and orange. Try different salt varieties to infuse minerality, smoke or the sea to your house classic, and consider salting only half the rim.

Menu Examples

Sea Cubed
Mango-, lime- and chile-infused Cimarrón Blanco Tequila, fresh
lime juice, agave and salty seaweed “Sea Cube”
—George’s at the Cove, La Jolla, Calif.

Salt Air
José Andrés’ personal favorite with Milagro Blanco, Combier L’Original, fresh lime juice and ‘Salt Air’ foam
—Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, Washington, D.C.

Sweetened

With only three ingredients—tequila, lime and sweet—each one gets maximum play. Now that we have dispensed with corn syrup and “sour” mix, the only variable becomes the sweetener. The intended sweet from the orange liqueur—which can range from cheap to overwrought—was traditionally a matter of ease and accessibility. That changed with the modern availability of agave syrup, now often the preferred addition.

Menu Examples

Bonecrusher
Mezcal, lime, agave, red pepper
—Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, Portland, Maine

Jicaro
Elote mezcal, maguey sap, lime juice, orange bitters
—Penca, Tucson, Ariz.

Flavored

Like the sweetener, margarita flavors have become more intentional, dry and natural. Tropical flavors, spicy notes, contrasting botanicals and what grows together usually goes together. That means hibiscus, melon, chiles, brown spices and other ingredients found in Mexican or Caribbean cuisine. Add these as infusion or garnish and keep the 2:1:1 ratio, or in addition and adjust the ratio of lime and sweet.

Menu Examples

Tamarindo
Sauza Silver, triple sec, lime
juice, tamarind, sugar rim
—Reforma, Tucson, Ariz.

Saffron
Saffron-infused tequila and mezcal, citrus and saffron salt
—ABC Cocina, New York

Spritzed

Water is an important element in a simple drink like the margarita. In the form of ice, it is used to both chill and lengthen, softening the other three ingredients. Another pathway to this element is to add something sparkling. That can be added directly to the 2:1:1 blend if it is neutral or very dry, such as mineral water or Cava. If adding a sweetened spritz, change the ratio to reduce the overall sweetness. Play around with products and amounts to make your specialty margaritas more approachable.

Menu Examples

Ranch Water
Pura Vida Silver Tequila, Cointreau and lime juice topped with Topo Chico
—White Buffalo Bar, Gage Hotel, Marathon, Texas

Peach Bellini Sparkling Margarita
100% blue agave tequila, fresh juice, peach purée, topped with sparkling wine
—Cactus Southwest Kitchen & Bar, Seattle

Spiced

Spice is a natural pairing for a margarita, whether in the accompanying food or in the drink itself. When considering how to add spice to the cocktail, consider the foods we like with margaritas and you will likely succeed. Fresh chiles can be infused, muddled, juiced or prepared in ice. They can be prepped as modifying sauces or syrups or even salts, dried and combined for the rim or as a dust for floating.

Menu Examples

Fire & Ice
Fresh-squeezed lime and jalapeños, Herradura Silver, The King’s Ginger premium liqueur, hand-shaken and served on the rocks
—Mariano’s Hacienda, Dallas

Chile ’Rita
Besito Caliente blackberry-habanero sauce, lime juice, Hornitos 100% pure agave reposado tequila and Patrón Citrónge
—La Posta, Mesilla, N.M.

Smoked

There are two easy ways to smoke up a margarita without resorting to crazy, geeky lengths: The first is to use a mezcal instead of tequila. Mezcal, by tradition, is produced using a lightly to heavily fired or smoked agave. The second is to use a naturally smoked salt both to season the cocktail and as all or part of the salt rim. Using both ingredients doubles the smoke signal.

Menu Examples

Smoked and Oaked
Ilegal Reposado Mezcal, Pasilla Oaxaca Grand Marnier, lime and smoked chile bitters
—La Esquina, New York

Smoky Margarita
Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, shaken with Grand Marnier
—Omni Hotels, multiple locations

Spirited

For the brightest margaritas, the tequila should be 100% blue agave—unaged, clear, blanco, silver or at most reposado. Less-expensive tequilas are a nice base for infusing. Mezcal is a terrific enhancement as a float and good for a specialty “smoky” version, but other spirits should be reserved as modifiers. Choosing a sweeter spirit to replace the sweet orange liqueur is a great way to add flavor. Go with something botanical, herbaceous or citrusy that complements the other elements in the base drink.

Menu Examples

DEl Pinchon
Vida Mezcal, Velvet Falernum, grapefruit, lime, mint, pink peppercorn 
—Mayahuel, New York

Hombre Sin Nombre
Blanco Tequila, Peychaud’s Bitters, mole bitters, agave and a Chartreuse rinse
—Lone Star Taco Bar, Cambridge, Mass.

Rimmed

Proprietary rims can lend extra depth of flavor, aroma and visual appeal to your signatures—using any number of wonderful natural salts. Add more to them by creating blends with honey or agave, or infusing them with spices and herbs, edible flowers, dried or toasted zests, dried vegetables, peppercorns, seeds or premade spice blends.

Menu Examples

Maradentro Margarita
Sauza 100% Agave Silver Tequila, passionfruit simple syrup, black lava salt rim
—Maradentro, Los Angeles

¿Porque No?
Espolón Blanco, fresh pineapple, cilantro, Serrano chile rim
—Empellón Al Pastor, New York

Slushie'd

Boozy slushies are having a moment, with frozen rosés (“frosés”) making a big splash this summer. Modern cocktail sensibility is influencing the syrupy, oversized offerings of the past, helping to make today’s frozen margarita more artisanal and complex but still refreshing and fun.

Menu Examples

Margarita Slush
Aged vino de agave, lime juice, agave nectar, Sel Bleu de Perse, and orange oil, mixed in a slushee machine
—Block Party, Los Angeles

Mandarina Mexicana
Hornitos Black Barrel, Amaretto, Mandarine Napoleon, coconut cream, pineapple and matcha green tea powder
—Picos, Houston

 

About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.