A Short Guide to Tequila and Making a Great Margarita

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margarita in a glass

Quick Cinco de Mayo quiz: Where is the margarita more popular, the United States or Mexico? If you guessed the U.S. you win. Margaritas are the number one cocktail ordered in the U.S. In Mexico, the Paloma– a combination of grapefruit soda, tequila, salt and lime juice — is the mixed-drink of choice. But north of the border, margaritas reign supreme and, as you might guess, there’s no day where margaritas are served more in this country than Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo is sort of an odd holiday. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Mexican Independence Day — that takes place in September. No, Cinco de Mayo is simply the commemoration of a battle where the French were defeated in Puebla. In Mexico it is not an official holiday and Puebla is really the only place where the day is observed.

This is not to say you shouldn’t celebrate yourself. After all, there’s a solid American tradition of embracing other countries’ holidays as an excuse for a good happy hour (think of St. Patrick’s Day). Plus the weather is so nice in May and there are really no other good party holidays until Memorial Day (yes, there’s Mother’s Day, but that’s really more about brunch). So if you’re looking for an excuse to be festive, then today is the day to break out the chips and guacamole and make a nice pitcher of margaritas.

To learn more about this classic Mexican cocktail and tequila itself, I interviewed a couple of experts. Dave Karraker works for SKYY Spirits in San Francisco, which distributes both Cabo Wabo and Espolón Tequila (plus he’s a friend of a friend), so I figured he’d be a good person to speak with. I also asked Julian Limon Nunez, a colleague of my husband’s whose family owns the Tequila El Viejito distillery in Guadalajara Mexico, to tell me a little bit about tequila.

So here’s a little primer on margaritas and tequila for your Cinco de Mayo holiday. Enjoy and remember to call a cab for any friends who are celebrating with you.

blue agaave plant

Agave tequilana (blue agave). Photo credit: Kurt Stüber courtesy of GNU Free Documentation License

What’s the difference between the various types of tequila?
First of all, tequila must be produced in very specific regions of Mexico to be allowed the “tequila” designation. Just as you can’t call a sparkling wine champagne if it’s not made in the Champagne region of France, you cannot call a spirit tequila if it is not made in Jalisco or a few other designated areas in Mexico.

There are two main categories of tequila.
100% agave — This is a spirit made entirely from the agave plant.
Mixto – This is a mixture of agave plus other ingredients which include grain alcohols and/or sugar and food coloring. It must be at least 51% agave to qualify as tequila.

Both Julian and Dave suggest avoiding mixtos if for no other reason than mixed alcohols give you a hangover. Plus the flavor is more harsh and, quite honestly, not all that great. If you’ve ever had a tequila that made you swear you’d never drink it again, chances are it was a mixto.

There are five types of 100% agave tequila:

  • Blanco (silver) — This tequila is not aged after it’s been distilled and has an earthy agave flavor.
  • Reposado — Aged between 2months to a year, reposado tequilas offer a smooth taste without a lot of bite.
  • Joven (gold) — This is a combination of blanco and reposado and is a great choice for mixed drinks.
  • Añejo — Aged between one and three years in oak barrels, this is a sipping tequila. Like a fine Scotch or other aged spirits, it has a refined taste that is best appreciated on its own.
  • Extra Añejo — Aged for three years or more in oak barrels, this tequila is the highest quality available.

Which tequila should you use to make margaritas?
Both Julian and Dave recommend using blanco, joven or reposado tequila for making margaritas. Blanco will give your margarita more of a true agave flavor while reposado is for those who want a smoother taste. Joven is a nice balance between the two.

Don’t use añejo and extra añejo as they are too refined to mix with citrus or really anything else and should be appreciated on their own. Plus they’re a lot more expensive so it’s a bit of a waste to use as an ingredient for a mixed drink.

Why do people salt their margarita glass?
According to Dave, salt opens up the taste buds and the palate, which aids in the tasting experience. Julian thinks the salt neutralizes the sweetness of the cocktail. He says that a lot of Mexican desserts are sweet and salty (like tamarind confections), and salting something sweet is common in Mexico. Plus the salt nicely accompanies the agave and lime flavors and enhances the overall margarita experience.

When salting a margarita glass, be sure to run a lime around the edge to moisten the lip so the salt sticks. Salting your margarita glass is really a personal choice. And, if the salt bugs you, then leave it off.

Should you add other liquors to your margarita?
There are two ways to infuse sweetness into your margarita, adding an orange liquor or including agave nectar or syrup. A recipe using each method is provided below.

Triple sec, Cointreau and Grand Marnier are often used to add a sophisticated orange sweetener to margaritas. They are commonly added in restaurant and bar drinks because they provide a smooth balance to the lime; they also make the drink more expensive.

If you prefer a natural agave flavor, then you can simply use an agave syrup, which naturally sweetens the drink and heightens the agave flavor, adding a complexity that other sweeteners diminish.

margarita with lime

Margarita Recipes

And now for the part you’ve been waiting for, the actual recipes so you can get down to celebrating. I’ve included two margarita recipes here. The first is a Classic Margarita. Recommended by Dave, who says it’s the recipe that Tommy’s uses, it forgoes the orange liquor and instead relies on agave syrup. With only tequila, lime and agave this is a purist’s drink. The second recipe uses Cointreau for a sweeter more refined flavor. Both are a great way to celebrate the day.

Recipe: Classic Margarita

Summary: Margarita using tequila, agave syrup and lime

Recipe used with the permission of SKYY Spirits

Prep time: 5 min
Total time: 5 min
Yield: 1 drink

Ingredients

  • 1 lime wedge
  • Kosher salt
  • Ice
  • 2 ounces tequila (Dave recommends Cabo Wabo or Espolon but any blanco, joven or reposado will do)
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce agave nectar or juice

Instructions

  1. Moisten the outer rim of a rocks glass with the lime wedge and coat lightly with salt.
  2. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the tequila, lime juice and agave nectar, shake well and strain into the rocks glass.

Culinary Tradition: Mexican

Recipe: The Perfect Margarita

Summary: The second recipe is from Chow. With Cointreau added to augment the drink with an infusion of orange flavor, the result is quite elegant.

Prep time: 5 min
Total time: 5 min
Yield: 1 drink

Ingredients

  • Salt, for rimming the glass (optional)
  • Ice
  • 1 1/2 ounces Tequila (blanco, 100 percent agave)
  • 1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau (not Triple Sec)

Instructions

  1. If using salt, place in a shallow dish. Moisten the rim of a rocks glass with a dampened paper towel, then dip in salt.
  2. Fill the glass with ice; add tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau; and stir a few times until chilled. Serve immediately.

Culinary Tradition: Mexican

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, cocktails and spirits, holidays and traditions, recipes

About the Author ()

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise's Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.
  • http://www.drinksecrets.com white russian

    Nice read. I love myself some Margaritas every now and then.
    I usually add some Grand Marnier to mine though, that’s just a personal preference since i think it tastes better :)