The Gnostic Gospels: The Margarita


I’ve written before of the four bedrock drinks of cocktailia. Each based on one of the four foundation spirits of classic cocktail mixing: gin, bourbon, rum, and brandy, I refer to these cocktails as The Four Gospels. There are other great and/or popular spirits that people mix with, of course. And there is for most of them an emblematic cocktail as well. I’ll refer to these drinks as the Gnostic Gospels, since the spirits they use aren’t quite canonical for one reason or another.

With Cinco de Mayo fast approaching, let’s discuss the (Gnostic) Gospel of Tequila: The Margarita.


Margaritas! Woo Hoo!

Um, no. Not quite what I want to talk about here. The Margarita suffers from all sorts of problems, few if any of them its own fault. The biggest is that, like the Gospel of Rum (the Daiquiri), the Margarita has been largely debased from great classic cocktail into a machine-dispensed, umbrella party drink that is consumed rather than savored. It’s a shame really, because when made well, the Margarita is a delicious, sophisticated cocktail that you can order in the finest cocktail bars in the world with your head held high.

Please note, I’m not totally dismissing the frozen Margarita here. There are times when a slushy, salt-encrusted bowl of green agave bomb is just the thing. They can truly rev up a party, and if you either cannot afford or do not want to pop for the good stuff on this set of guests, Frozen Margaritas are the best way to go to hide the genuinely crappy flavors of cheap tequila.
Cheap or expensive, Tequila really does seem to have a higher than average ability to knock down inhibitions. I banned the stuff from my own parties back in my late twenties after two incidents. The first ended with me rolling up and down the hill in our back yard in the wet grass with several of the neighborhood wives. The second had my own wife finding me taking a shower in the guest bathroom, fully clothed, but dry as a bone since I’d forgotten to turn on the water.

But this blog is a high-falutin’ operation, so I’ll leave off the frozen Margarita discussion with a single piece of advice for those who came here looking for insight into cold, green, party punch for St. Patrick’s Day (South of the Border Edition). Forget the blender. It is a hassle, loud, and unlike with lots of frozen cocktails, unnecessary. If you are going to do the Margarita Party thing, just try one of these products. The freezer bucket mixes just need a bottle of cheap tequila and some freezer space, and they make a plenty serviceable faux Mexican party drink.

Let’s start with what is in a Margarita: Tequila, lime, an orange liqueur, and a bit of sweetener. Within this, there is a lot of room for variation and experimentation. Here is the recipe I use when my fancy takes me to Margaritaville:

MARGARITA

  • 2 1/2 parts silver tequila
  • 1 part Cointreau
  • 3/4 to 1 part fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 part agave syrup

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice and do the hat dance until it is seriously cold. Strain into a properly salt-rimmed cocktail glass.

I’ll go through each bit to show where you might want to vary the program, and why I don’t.

For the most part, I stick with silver tequilas in my Margaritas. The added character is largely wasted in this mix, and frankly, I don’t like the color as much in the final cocktail. Rather than spend your money on a reposado or anjeo, spend it on a better class of white tequila and you’ll be well ahead of the game. Whatever tequila you use in making your real Margarita, make sure it is actually drinkable.
If you take a sip and have to bite into a lime and lick salt just to survive the experience, it isn’t good enough tequila. If you do want to use a dark, aged tequila, I suggest you do it on the rocks, where the color will be less of an issue.

Which brings us to the choice of up or on the rocks. As I mentioned above, the frozen version is a fine drink, but it is not a cocktail. A good Margarita cocktail can be served either chilled or with ice, and in either a cocktail glass or a rocks. I prefer up, in a cocktail glass, because I think it is more elegant. But since it is so important that your Margarita be cold when you drink it, you may find rocks to be a better choice if you like to pour a larger portion.

In either case, please don’t use those giant, thick “Margarita” glasses. These things are ugly, clunky, and take up unnecessary space in your cabinets that could be devoted to booze. If you must use these things, do it with the slush.


Not the Devil, but it is what he drinks out of.

Cointreau is apparently the original liqueur in Margaritas. I use it because, well, I seem to use Cointreau in every damn thing I mix. Also, it is a magnificent step up from basic Triple Sec. You can also use Grand Marnier, or other orange liqueur such as Patron’s Citronage. Why you’d bother, I don’t know. Cointreau is delicious.

Fresh lime juice. ‘Nuff said there.

You may or may not want the sweetener. I like a little myself. I use agave syrup here, and in precious little else. It is not flavor neutral, and in most cocktails that is a problem. But for obvious reasons, it does go quite well with tequila.

The last big thing is the rim.

In an Art of Drink post two years ago, Darcy says a lot about the salts to use on your rim. For my part, I just want to focus on where, not what. Below is not how to rim your glass, for Margaritas, or any other salt or sugar-rimmed glass. Ever.

The salt needs to be outside the glass, not inside, and the standard bar rimmer, while fast, will put just as much or more material on the inside of the glass as the outside. Rimming materials that are inside the rim of the glass will wash into the drink. If you wanted the salt dissolved in the drink, you’d add it when you are shaking. Outside the rim, the salt will only dissolve on the drinker’s tongue, in the amount he or she desires.

To that end, always leave a gap at least a quarter of the way around the glass clear of ice, so the drinker can start out with a span of rim where they can be completely salt-free, even on their first sip. You should do this with any rimmed drink you make, salt, sugar, or Peruvian cocoa and parika dust.

Achieving this kind of rim, with the salt only on the outside and leaving a perfect gap, is harder than just slamming your damp glass into a ring of salt, but not by much really. To make the salt stick, take a freshly cut wedge of lime and run it around the outside rim of the glass as far around and down the outside as you want the salt to coat. Then lean the glass over on its side and pat its outside gently into a high pile of your chosen salt. Don’t turn the glass while it is in the salt, or you’ll get a messy rim and your salt pile will get contaminated. Instead, pat the glass down, lift and twist slightly. Repeat until you have gone as far around as you want. The result is a gorgeous, evenly crusted outer rim. With the slightest of practice, it takes 30 seconds, tops.

Before I leave you to your newly sophisticated Conco de Mayoing, I should explain why I classify the Margarita as a Gnostic Gospel. Good Margaritas have all the hallmarks of a gospel cocktail. They are delicious, simple to make, complex, beautifully showcase the quality of the base spirit, and they are the quintessential means of serving tequila.
But whereas vodka is so devoid of character it is relegated to the gnostic status, Tequila’s conversely overwhelming character makes it just too limited a spirit in its own right to merit full gospel status. It is a bitch to mix with in general. Its unique flavor profile is problematic with a host of the usual cocktail ingredients; so much so that most every tequila cocktail ends up being some kind of Margarita derivative. Also, despite tremendous money spent in recent years by the industry, with lots of creative advertising and a concurrent increase in sales, tequila remains a boutique or niche spirit. Most Americans drink it only in Mexican restaurants or on Cinco de Mayo. Similar to what I said about Old Fashioneds and Mad Men season premiers, 95% of everything you will see written about tequila this year, will be written this week.

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

17 Comments

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  • Couple of things:

    1- My own take (more or less in agreement with yours) on this Deuterocanonical spirit is here: http://basiccivilization.blogspot.com/2010/01/margarit.html

    2- I realized in reviewing the above that I had decided to invest in a (small) set of coupe glasses rather than waste the coin on margarita glasses. So my views on PLAIN coupe glasses had been revised upward, and two years ago at that.

    Mea culpa.

    But hanged if I get those gilt-etched excresences.

    3- I think the frozen margarita can be more than TJ McFunster’s bucket fare, if treated with a modicum of respect. (A modicum, not much more than that.)

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  • Damn. Who’d have thought that I’d be beaten to the punch today in my ambition to use Deuterocanonical in my comment? (Likely it’s best to stick with Gnostic Gospel and not try for some portmanteau of Apocrypha with cocktail…)

    Good show Doug. When next someone asks me about tequila I will quote you:
    If you take a sip and have to bite into a lime and lick salt just to survive the experience, it isn’t good enough tequila.

    Indeed!

    Cheers!

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  • Dagreb – Sorry! Years upon years of Jesuit schooling have given me this odd reflex.

    Doug – In my defense, coupe-wise, the ones I got are hollow stemmed and, for reasons I cannot adequately fathom, I’m a sucker for hollow stemmed cocktailware.

    After my first comment, I thunk and thunk and thunk, about your statement that all tequila cocktails are Margaritas of one form or another and I wanted you to expand on that in light of the Tequila Sunrise.

    I’ll hang up now and take my answer off the air.

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  • Dagreb,
    While I neglected for narrative reasons to couch it this way, the whole slushie variant is what, with Gospel cocktails, I refer to as an Heresy. I do like Apocrypha though. I may, whenever I get around to re-writing these in full form, steal that idea for the “acceptable” variants to the Gospels.

    Joe,
    I’ll grudgingly bow to you and simply say, “The Exception That Proves…”

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  • There IS a difference — possibly only in MY head, though — between slushy and frozen drinks.

    (p.s. my word verification words were “usndoc” and “Gospel.”

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  • I think you’re taking your hyperbole about the mixability of tequila a bit too far. There are plenty of bars that make a broad variety of tequila-based cocktails, some to great effect. For instance, Death & Co:

    http://www.deathandcompany.com/lounge/currentmenu.pdf

    Mayahuel:

    http://mayahuelny.com/cocktails.php

    And my own tiny addition, which was an adaptation of a nod to the Blood & Sand from Eleven Madison Park:

    http://cocktailchem.blogspot.com/2010/06/heading-south.html

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  • Jordan,
    Of course, I’ve done other drinks with Tequila, too. I can be done, it just isn’t quite the versatile spirit the others are. Look at D&C’s menu. Four lime-based sours (hmmm) and four(?) vermouth-based concoctions. I’ve tried this kind of drink, and they can be very drinkable, but your margin for error is pretty slim if you ask me.
    Regardless, compare the tequila section with the others on the D&C menu and you’ll see how narrow its really is.

    Genius bartenders can make just about anything work well. Witness the myriad ways they have come up with this decade to make Fernet sort of not evil incarnate. But for the average, even semi-sophisticated Joe, Tequila gets problematic fast when you move away from the limeosphere.

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  • Wit, Wisdom & Whiskey Decanter,

    Not at all! I lay out the reasons I relegate Vodka to a Gnostic Gospel are mostly the opposite of Tequila. Vodka does indeed go with everything. The problem is that it brings no real character to the party itself. Also, there is, nor should be, any great variety of character between Vodkas, so the artistry of combining the RIGHT brand of the chosen spirit with your other ingredients goes away.

    Don’t get me wrong. Brandy has it’s own problems as a spirit in cocktails, but its vast tradition of great and varied products, and its history of being a base spirit since people started making cocktails at all is why I view it a “canonical” and Vodka as… almost.

    The real point of course is to start an argument.

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  • Doug,

    I’d like to continue the argument, but, after re-reading your points, I’ve decided to at least try it your way, and see how it works for me. I’ve been stuck on keeping my home bar stocked with gin, vodka, whiskey, and rum that I haven’t yet taken the time to select a fine brandy to keep on hand. I’ll let you know how it works out.

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  • Wit-Wisdom-Whiskey-Decanter,

    If you are going to use it to make cocktails, I’d not spend a ridiculous amount on a real high-end brandy. A basic VSOP Cognac will do for most mixing. One project I have on my semi-eternal waiting list is to try to break down the different brands and learn more about the differences, but I have yet to get beyond some basic comparisons.

    Work, work, work…

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  • I think the reason most people have so much trouble early on with tequila, is that it is very easy to drink for someone new to drinking when mixed right, yet still has a very distictive taste, unlike Vodka. There is also the whole shooting thing. Therefore, when one has to learn the hard way one’s limits, the unique taste will always be there as a reminder of that lesson learned. Not a problem with vodka. Likewise, for every person that has a problem with tequila, there is another that has a problem with Southern Comfort.

    As for brandy, if mixing it, I think a VS cognac from any of the big four will work well enough. You still get the essence of what brandy should taste like, it’s just more rough is all.

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  • Doug- your second incident,the shower one, is really intresting.I had Margarita many times and it is really awesome drink.

    @Jason – your thought about brandy is right.Margarita is always good but is anything better than
    Margarita available?

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