When life gives you limes...: Reworking the Margarita

Gaëlle Laforest

09 February 2016

… use them to make some form of Margarita-related cocktail, of course. Gaëlle Laforest looks on as a bevy of bars get to grips with ways of bringing a modern twist to Mexico’s finest

Loved by drinkers around the world on both sides of the bar, we can confidently say that the Margarita is one of the greatest classic cocktails of all time. It’s recognisable in an instant: the tall, coupe-like glass; the lime wheel; the salt rim; the pale green colour.

Actually, sometimes it’s a rocks glass. And white slush. Or any other colour of slush, for that matter. Lime wedge, chunks of ice, rock or sea salt, straws or not, in a Martini glass or a paper cup… Like most classics, the Margarita has been played with over and over again, and most bars have a version of it on their menu.

‘Margaritas are so popular because of their simplicity,’ says Ronan Collins of Trailer Happiness. ‘It’s just a banging drink. But at the same time, it’s easy to get it wrong. All the ingredients have to marry perfectly.’

Which is precisely why Imbibe’s latest task was so tricky. We asked bartenders to take the Margarita somewhere new, reworking it in a creative and inspiring way – but without losing the DNA of this classic drink.

As participants, we enlisted four tequila brands and four bartenders, from venues as varied and unexpected as a buzzing hotel bar, a Japanese cocktail lounge and a late-night tiki party bar.

All we asked is that they followed some simple rules: tequila should be the base spirit; the drink should include a citrus and a sweetener; and they could use one additional ingredient if they wished.

The Imbibe team then went on a grand Margarita tour to see and taste what the bartenders had devised. We know. Tough...

Up to the task
‘It was interesting how all bars had interpreted the Margarita in different ways,’ noted managing editor Julie Sheppard at the end of the day.

All had chosen to take different directions with their cocktail, and to focus on different aspects of the classic.

Almost all of the drinks used a blanco tequila as their base spirit, choosing to pair it with the quite fruity flavours typical of the Margarita. However, while most kept to the sharpness of the classic, some used richer fruit flavours that the panel thought were difficult to get right while remaining in the Margarita framework.

The rim was another aspect that saw a lot of attention. The most successful were the ones that managed to add an extra layer of flavour to the drink, and several used smoky elements that were a great match to the citrus and agave flavours used in the liquid. In terms of appearance, a tidy rim made for a more attractive drink – and only took a few extra seconds to make.

We asked bartenders to take the Margarita somewhere new, but without losing the DNA of this classic

As for the flavours, seeing the breadth of the options available, a useful rule of thumb was to find a concept that would work with the venue’s clientele, and with the context in which it was being ordered.

An umami-heavy Asian-inspired Margarita might not work in a hotel bar, for instance, but it will in a Japanese restaurant; orgeat and blood orange will not seem out of place in a tiki bar.

When it comes to creating interest, while a snappy name might help, overall Margaritas tend to sell themselves. ‘Our most popular drink on the menu is the Black Margarita, but we also get a lot of orders for classic Margaritas,’ says Ham Yard’s Eoin Kenny. ‘Tequila in general is getting a lot of interest, something that’s helped by bartenders talking about it and educating people.’

All in all, the diversity in the drinks – from the ice and glassware to the garnishes, juices and liqueurs used, and the styles and price-points of tequilas – showed just how far you can go with a Margarita without losing sight of the drink’s roots.

Read on for inspiration – just in time to add a special to your menu for Margarita Day on 22 February…

Giorgio Maggioni, Shochu Lounge at Roka

‘The first tequila cocktail that comes to mind is always the Margarita – and in this drink we’ve tried to marry the two cultures of Mexico and Japan,’ opined Maggioni.

‘These days the most requested Margarita is a Tommy’s, so I’ve made a juice using agave, lime and kumquat skin. We tried using yuzu but it was too citrusy. Kumquat, especially when using only its skin, adds more bitterness.’

Maggioni used kombu, an Asian seaweed, in the salt used for the rim, to add some umami and earthy notes. Before serving, the glass was also smoked with some more dried kombu mixed with wood chips, creating enticing aromas that continued within the drink. ‘It’s got some real savoury undertones,’ said Sheppard. ‘All that umami and smoke character comes out on the finish.’

This serve was particularly successful at using the traditional elements of a Margarita and twisting them up to create something novel. ‘There’s a lot going on,’ said Laforest. ‘The kumquat adds sharpness and vibrancy, against a nice backbone of smoky elements, complemented by the caramelised flavours of the pineapple. This has a distinct Japanese element – but definitely remains a Margarita.’

Not only that, it was also interestingly served, with the kombu salt and smoked elements on a platter next to the drink. ‘It’s very clever, having all the aromas on the tray,’ said Foster.

GREAT IDEA: This cocktail struck the perfect balance between the classic elements that make the Margarita recognisable, namely tequila, citrus and sweetener, but built on that to add extra layers of flavour to give a drink that was not only pleasant, but also a great fit for the venue.
COULD DO BETTER: While the roast pineapple flavours worked well, some black dust from the char made it into the drink, making it look a little cloudy.

Acapulco Gold
Table glass
Garnish: Kombu salt rim
Method: Muddle the pineapple in the shaker. Add other ingredients and shake on ice. Rim and smoke the glass for a few seconds, then double strain into the glass on a chunk of ice.
50ml Casamigos Blanco
25ml lime, kumquat and agave juice*
1 chunk robata-grilled pineapple
*To make the juice: blend 200ml lime juice with 20g kumquat skin. Then mix 15ml of the resulting juice with 15ml agave syrup.

Dario Venovski, M Victoria St

‘We don’t usually have a Margarita on the menu, so I thought we’d try something different – something people will remember,’ explained Venovski. ‘I thought: “Let’s not use products people can find in the supermarket.” I especially like añejos and reposados, so I picked Don Julio 1942. And while, usually, the most premium sweetener people would use is Cointreau, I decided to go with the rich Grand Marnier Cuvée de Centenaire. When you offer someone a millionaire’s drink, they go for it.

‘Salt can be a bit overpowering in a Margarita. In this drink I’m using a half rim so people can have the option to have salt or not. It’s a drink for everybody’s taste.’

Impressive on the eye, the Imbibe team praised this drink for its impeccable appearance. ‘Precise rim, and an elegant glass, both well suited to this top-end Margarita,’ said news and online editor Clinton Cawood. ‘Simple but really striking,’ sub editor Gaëlle Laforest added. ‘There’s no need for a garnish.’

A subtle smokiness was key to this drink. More ashy than smoky, the salt rim was ‘very culinary – it made the drink more interesting,’ said Sheppard. Venovski said he’d worked with the kitchen to create the two smoked elements that added a welcome contrast to the indulgent fruit and spice flavours of the drink. ‘Without the salt it’s a bit on the rich side,’ noted Cawood. ‘The salt is great in its ability to balance this out.’

GREAT IDEA: Bringing in a smoky element was smart, as it created an extra depth to the drink that was echoed subtly by the smoked caramel water. The simplicity of the drink’s look made it a sophisticated choice that suited the venue.
COULD BE BETTER: While using ultra-premium ingredients might be something that would appeal to customers at M Victoria St, the Imbibe team thought the restaurant could have been a bit more adventurous with the concept.

Millionaire Margarita
Garnish: Smoked black salt rim, discarded orange peel
Method: Shake ingredients on ice. Rim half the glass with the salt. Double strain into the chilled glass.
40ml Don Julio 1942
30ml Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire
20ml lime juice
15ml smoked caramel water*
*Smoke 300ml water using a smoking gun. Boil with 150g caster sugar, slices of half an orange and lemon, 1 star anise, half a cinnamon stick, 2 cloves and 1 lime leaf. Simmer 15 minutes then let it stand for 4 hours before straining.

Eoin Kenny, Ham Yard

‘The idea for this drink was to combine the three most popular, and in my opinion, best ways to make Margaritas,’ Kenny explained. ‘Up with
a salt rim, a Tommy’s, and a frozen one.

‘I think Margaritas perform better on ice, as it makes them accessible. Using agave as a sweetener instead of Triple Sec allows us to bring it all back to where it came from in Mexico. That’s also a reason behind the choice of glassware. Tomas Estes told me that’s how he was served his first Margarita: in a big wine goblet.’

This was the most Margarita-like drink on the day. Kenny expertly executed a balanced, bright drink. The homemade agave and orange liqueur added a pleasant fruity bitter finish. ‘It tastes like a proper Margarita, dialled up to 11,’ said Sheppard. ‘It really captures the soul of this classic.’

The drink was served with a bowl of Herradura and lime granita topped with agave dust, which was made by drying and cooking a mix of glucose and agave. ‘The granita’s fun and original, and will help make the drink eye-catching,’ said Laforest. Sheppard agreed that there was an important element of fun to this drink. ‘It’s not really a sophisticated drink – but does it need to be?’

GREAT IDEA: This drink was best at capturing the spirit of a Margarita: refreshing, zesty, and mostly fun. The granita side meant this would make a perfect summer drink – but the serve still works all year round.
COULD BE BETTER: ‘I loved this drink, but was it really a departure from the classic Margarita?’ queried assistant editor Laura Foster. While there was creativity in the mix of classics, and the addition of a granita; the overall flavour profile of this cocktail scored less well for originality.

Margarita Three Ways
Glass: Goblet
Garnish: Rock salt rim
Method: Shake all ingredients and strain over ice. Serve with a side of tequila and lime granita topped with agave dust.
50ml Herradura Plata
30ml lime juice
25ml agave and orange liqueur*
*To make: boil 20 dehydrated orange wheels with 1kg agave nectar. Simmer 15 minutes, strain, and add an equal amount of water. Add equal measure of neutral spirit, taste and adjust sweetness. The abv should be 20%.

Ronan Collins, Trailer Happiness

‘Tequila and blood orange pretty much go hand in hand. Using it as a sweetener means you get the taste of it but it’s not overpowering. It’s also a way that we can make a tequila drink like a rum drink,’ explained Collins.

‘I used Patrón Silver because it’s clean
and crisp. There’s a lot of flavours in here, and this ties it all in; it lifts everything in the drink like a bitters would do.

‘Everyone does salt rims, so we chose to do a cinnamon sugar rim instead. It gives more of a festive feeling. There’s no point in avoiding festivity – we all try and do seasonal menus anyway!’

The flavours in here were absolutely those of a rum bar, and Sheppard was quick to call this a tiki twist on a Margarita, not least because of the orgeat. ‘The blood orange is great; and I like the nutty orgeat finish – but it does result in a very sweet drink,’ commented Foster.

Using sugar and cinnamon for the rim was a real point of difference. It helped create an expressive nose with wintery flavours, but also contributed a little kick to the drink. ‘It’s fun and accessible,’ said Cawood. ‘It works well, isn’t over complex, and is well suited to Trailer Happiness. And it’s still a Margarita.’

The panel was divided over that last point, though. ‘For me, the appeal of a Margarita is that sharp, sour attack,’ said Foster. ‘Applying a tiki twist has rounded that sharpness off.’

GREAT IDEA: The ‘Christmas in Mexico’ concept was original, and brought together elements from both the rum and tequila worlds. The hand-carved ice was a nice touch.
COULD DO BETTER: The drink erred on the side of tiki perhaps a bit too much, losing some Margarita characteristics, and our panel felt it could have done with a little less orgeat.

Tequila Happiness
Garnish: Cinnamon sugar rim* and orange peel
Method: Shake on ice. Single strain over a chunk of ice and garnish.
50ml Patrón Silver
25ml lime juice
15ml blood orange syrup (2:1 blood orange juice to sugar)
10ml orgeat
*To make: mix three parts caster sugar to one part cinnamon.

Images: Rob Lawson

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