The margarita is surely one of the borderland’s most important exports to the rest of the world. The tequila-based cocktail — along with tequila itself — has pretty much conquered the world in recent decades. The popular drink has probably won the region more friends than any other single food or beverage and does so with a sassy vitality that represents the spirit of the people and place.
A JIGGER OF HISTORY
New Mexicans have always had an affinity for the simply inspired combo of sweet, sour, and salty that is the classic margarita. Like most good things, multiple sources claim credit for its creation. It seems only to date, though, to the 1940s. Typically, the drink is a mixture of fresh lime juice and an orange liqueur with silver or blanco tequila.
Long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Indigenous people fermented the juice of the agave plant, producing pulque. The Spanish though, introduced their Old-World distillation technique, which turned pulque into mezcal. Tequila is a version of mezcal, much as cognac is a type of brandy.
To earn the name tequila, the spirit has to be made with at least 51% of the special blue Weber agave plant raised in one of five designated agricultural regions in Mexico. The tequila in your drink doesn’t have to be a premium version but, for the best flavor, it for darned sure should be a 100 percent blue agave tequila.
THE CLASSIC MARGARITA
Lots of commercial margaritas are made with sweet-and-sour mix but, at home, there’s no reason not to use freshly squeezed limes. And actually, using lemon juice, or half lemon and lime, is an acceptable substitute. Triple sec is used in many margaritas, but Cointreau’s a higher-grade orange-flavored liqueur that I think is essential to a great version. If you’re wanting to further dazzle, though, opt for even pricier Grand Marnier.
The typical proportions for the cocktail are 3 parts tequila to 1 part citrus, and 1 to 2 parts of the orange-flavored liqueur. The mixture should be shaken with ice, then strained into a salt-rimmed glass, where a few fresh cubes are acceptable for an “on the rocks” version.
My personal introduction to the margarita was the frothy frozen kind. It was the mid-1970s and I lived in Dallas, not far from Mariano’s, a Mexican-themed bar and restaurant wildly popular with the college and 20-something crowd. Everyone seemed to want a blended margarita. When the place had opened a few years earlier, the bartenders had been having a heck of a time keeping up with the demand.
Owner Mariano Martinez had an epiphany when passing a Slurpee machine in a 7-Eleven store. He acquired one of the machines and repurposed it for making a frozen version of the bar’s most popular cocktail. Other bars quickly followed suit. That original machine was seen as such a quintessential part of American bar culture that it now resides in the Smithsonian.
SEASON TO TASTE
Of course, you too can riff on a margarita in many directions. Replace the salt rim with some commercial tajin seasoning, a rusty mix of dried chile and lime powder with salt. Some of the most common variations are a fruitier base, such as mango, strawberry, or prickly pear cactus. Most folks skip the salty rim with these, but you don’t have to. Or use a half-and-half combo of coarse sugar with the salt. A throwback idea is to use blue curaçao (yes, it’s really blue), in place of the other orange liqueur.
At the height of summer, the addition of some pureed cucumber seems like a real thirst-quencher to me. I also like the added pizzazz of a little jalapeño or serrano chile blended into the cucumber. A mezcal “float,” a pour of perhaps ½ ounce of the smokier spirit over the top, is a worthy addition.
Whatever version you prefer, a hearty “Salud!”
CLASSIC MARGARITA RECIPE
3 parts 100 percent blue agave tequila
1 part citrus (lime or a mix of lime and lemon)
1 – 2 parts orange-flavored liqueur (Triple Sec, Cointreau, or Grand Marnier)
Pour over a few ice cubes for an on the rocks margarita or blitz it in the blender for the blended version. Pour into a glass with the rimmer of your choice.
Story by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.
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