I don’t know about you, but I don’t give two figs that it’s November and we’re talking Margaritas. In California, the Margarita is a perennial favorite. And who better to wax poetic on the drink than modern-day flâneur David Lansing, who has kindly taken a break from his extensive travels and own excellent travel blog to share his recipe for a perfect Margarita. Trust me, people, he knows of what he speaks. It’s got me thinking…perhaps we’ll have a Margarita Smackdown this spring (in the tradition of this summer’s heated GUAC OFF). I already know the first three contestants: Lansing, of course; my third-generation New Mexican neighbor, Martha; and my friend Susan’s husband, Wylie, maker of the WP (aka Wylie’s Perfect Margarita). But while we mull the possible contenders, I give you David Lansing on this fine Friday…
Having just returned from a month-long hiatus in Mexico, I have come to the conclusion that Mexicans no longer know how to make a proper margarita. At Ten Ten Pie in San Miguel de Allende I had to pry the bottle of Jose Cuervo gold out of Chema’s hand before he dumped the inglorious liquid into my glass. At El Sacromonte in Guadalajara I reveled in their chile en nogada while ignoring a large but insipid especial margarita that smelled of petroleum. And at Adriatico in Bucerias I got into an argument with my waiter for insisting that the bartender actually squeeze fresh limes for my drink instead of using some syrupy mix straight from Gigante. It’s triste, no?
A good margarita is one of those things that seems easy enough to make—like an omelette—yet so few people do it well. So let me tell you the key to making the perfect margarita: balance.
Have you read Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio? If not, you should. It’s illuminating. Ruhlman posits that if you know the simple proportions of things like biscuit dough (3:1:2—3 parts flour, 1 part fat, and 2 parts liquid) it will, as he says, “unchain you from recipes and set you free.” Ruhlman doesn’t have a ratio for cocktails, but I do: 2:1—2 parts base to 1 part modifier. For instance, to make a Manhattan, dump 2 ounces of bourbon and 1 ounce of red vermouth in a shaker of ice, shake, and strain into a martini glass. What could be simpler? (By the way, to make a great Manhattan, take 2 ounces of an excellent bourbon, like Makers Mark, and add 1/2 ounce of red vermouth and 1/2 ounce of red Dubonnet—same ratio, better result).
For a cocktail like the margarita, which has more than one ingredient, you just expand the ratio. Here, you have a double base, tequila and lime juice, and two modifiers, Cointreau and simple syrup, so the ratio is 2:2:1:1—2 parts tequila, 2 parts lime juice, 1 part Cointreau, and 1 part simple syrup. (Another way to think of it is that the 1 part Cointreau is modifying the taste of the 2 parts tequila while the 1 part simple syrup is modifying the tartness of the 2 parts lime juice. So it’s still a 2:1 ratio.) This ratio alone would give you a margarita as good or better than any you’ve ever had. But now let’s make it even better. To do that we need to focus on our ingredients.
First of all, it’s imperative that you use a very good 100% agave tequila. That’s what we want to taste—that agave spirit. You can make a valid argument for using either a blanco or reposado. Thomas Schnetz of Restaurante Doña Tomás in Oakland, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, insists on using a blanco tequila, El Tesoro, and I have no argument with that. Personally, I think a reposado brings out more of the roasted agave flavor, so that’s what I use. Centenario is my go-to tequila, but I also love El Tesoro or Siete Leguas when I can find it.
The lime juice is almost as important as the tequila. First of all, it can never come out of a bottle. If you have some sweet and sour mix in your fridge, like the unnaturally radiant green-colored Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix, I want you to go pour it on your blueberry bushes (they’ll appreciate the acidity). What you want are fresh limes. And not the big ol’ honking store limes the size of baseballs but the little Mexican limes (also called Key limes or bartender limes) the size of golf balls. These smaller limes are sweeter and not as acidic (and remember, it’s all about the balance). To get two ounces of lime juice, you might need to squeeze four or five limes, depending on the time of year they are harvested and the freshness of the limes.
Next comes the orange liqueur. Forget about Grand Marnier. It may make the “Cadillac” of margaritas, but do you drive a Cadillac? You do not. So don’t make a Cadillac margarita. Also avoid the cheap crap like Gran Gala. It’s yucky and will make your margarita taste yucky. Cointreau is great although I personally prefer the Mexican version, Controy. But you can’t buy Controy in the U.S. (the makers of Controy have a licensing agreement with the French producers of Cointreau which prevents the Mexican version from being sold in the U.S.—but next time you’re in Mexico, bring home a bottle of Controy and try it).
Finally, you will need some simple syrup. When in Mexico, I use a commercially produced version called Jarabe (which just means “syrup” in Spanish). It can’t possibly taste better than simple syrup you make yourself, but it does. Sort of how like Mexican Coke tastes better than U.S. Coke, I guess.
So now we’re ready to make the best damn margarita you’ve ever had. Get a martini shaker and fill it 2/3 with cubed ice (not crushed). Add two ounces of your most excellent 100% agave tequila, two ounces of fresh-squeezed Mexican lime juice, one ounce Cointreau and one ounce simple syrup. Shake. Strain into a margarita or martini glass, salted or not, as you prefer, and sip.
One last secret: The only way to make this cocktail better is to add a scant teaspoon of Princesa brand tamarindo jarabe de pulpa. You’ll have to sleuth around to find that, but if you get it, oh-my-god—you will have created la reina de margaritas. Now if it was only possible to get one this good in Mexico….—David Lansing