This Friday is Cinco de Mayo, the holiday celebrating the Mexican army's defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. A somewhat minor occasion in Mexico, it has become a big deal here in the United States, especially in Mexican-American communities across the country. If you are going to be out at your local drinking establishments, be ready for the onslaught of cerveza and Tequila, (along with dudes in big hats and fake mustaches). If you are into mixed drinks, the one you are most likely to encounter will be the most popular cocktail in the country: The Margarita.
There is a lot of uncertainty as to where the classic Margarita (Tequila, orange liqueur, and lime) originated. There are multiple stories out there, and here are a few of them:
A Tijuana restaurant owner claimed to make it for someone who was allergic to all spirits except tequila.
A Dallas socialite named Margarita made it for a group of friends while vacationing in Acapulco.
A bartender in Ensenada, Mexico served up an experimental cocktail to a German ambassador's daughter (named Margarita).
Some dude invented the drink as a wedding gift for his sister-in-law at a hotel where Rita Hayworth performed.
It's a variation of the Prohibition-era cocktail known as the Daisy.
You can get all the gory details on each of these claims right here. I tend to side with the last item on the list, but honestly who knows? No one does for certain. Additionally, who cares? What is most important is that the Margarita tastes great and it comes in many forms. You have the classic version mentioned above, but you can add other fruits, fruit liqueurs, flavored tequilas, and you do frozen versions, too.
You can even buy these cocktails premixed with alcohol, or alcohol-free (allowing for easy virgin versions or the ability to add your own Tequila). Honestly, I think taking the time to squeeze your own limes and keeping Cointreau on-hand is a marked improvement over the ready-to-drink stuff.
Let's talk about your choice of Tequila for a moment. While you need good quality ingredients across the board to make a good cocktail I find the choice of alcoholic base material to be really important here. Tequila, a term for a group of demarcated zones in Mexico permitted to produce a spirit made from the blue agave plant, has distinct flavors and aromas. Your selection of Tequila makes a difference in your Margarita; it's not just the brand name's house style, but also the amount of age on the Tequila.
When Tequila is double-distilled from oven-baked, crushed, and fermented agave plants, the result is a delicate white spirit that heads to holding tanks or white oak barrels to mature. If this juice was distilled a third time, none of the pungent agave character would show (and you would be left with something more vodka-like). Age the spirit too long, and the agave flavor is overwhelmed by oaky, caramelized flavors.
Side note: check out how agave plants are harvested before they are baked and crushed to release their fermentable sugars. It is always done manually and is labor intensive. This is what it takes just to get one plant done.
As you go Tequila shopping, you will see some label terms that will guide you as to what to expect (Nothing you purchase should have a "worm" in it, which is a larvae that actually compromises the health of agave plants out in the fields. It's a cheap marketing gimmick...don't fall for it!).
Silver/Blanco/Plata: all terms refer to white Tequila, unaged or briefly rested in a vat before being filtered to remove any color.
Gold: A Silver Tequila that has been caramel-colored
Reposado: literally "rested", spirit ages two to twelve months, usually in very large barrels.
Anejo: spirit ages at least one year in barrels no larger than 600 liters. "Extra" or "Muy" Anejo requires three years minimum aging.
So what to do? Well, a Silver makes a great choice since the flavors are clean and fresh and when you add the Cointreau and lime juice you end up with a zesty, refreshing cocktail. A Reposado will give you an interesting depth of flavor with vanilla and spice. It also tempers aggressively earthy aromatic Tequila that comes from the Lowlands like Herradura. The Anejo category is better for sipping neat, maybe with a splash of water or lime as they can overwhelm the classic version of the cocktail. Conversely, the nuanced flavors of the Anejos can be lost in the shuffle. As for the golds, I notice them to have burnt and "off" flavors that come from the (oftentimes) high-speed, large-scale sugar extraction that takes place during the cooking process.
To make the classic Margarita, shake up 1.5 oz of Tequila, 0.75 oz of Cointreau, and 0.75 oz fresh lime juice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a salt-rimmed Margarita glass. You can find all kinds of flavored variants out there, but you know us here...we are traditionalists when it comes to our mixed drinks.
Need a recommendation for base material? I have a few below for you:
Milagro Silver Tequila ($32): If you like your Margarita with a salt rim, this is the way to go. On its own it is fiery, but its clean agave flavor, citrusy character and salty kick on the finish makes this the perfect choice for our classic cocktail.
Cazadores Silver Tequila ($25): If you are not into the salt rim, go with Cazadores. It has a softer texture as the fermented agave juice rests on the spent yeast cells (the lees) post-fermentation and pre-distillation. It's creaminess and stone fruit flavor would also make this a good choice for a frozen peach Margarita.
Herradura Resposado ($40): This is pungent and aggressive as the agave shows a different character when grown in the Lowlands of the Tequila regions. Bell pepper and ground black pepper spice on the nose with a leafy, vanilla finish. This is great for the IPA beer drinker who likes those strong but refreshing flavors.