The margarita is part of the daisy family of cocktails, which were popular in the early 20th century. In fact, ‘margarita’ is the Spanish word for daisy. Cocktails in the daisy family consist of spirit, citrus juice and something to both sweeten it up and to balance the citrus. Although many people think the margarita comes from Mexico or South America, the origins of a cocktail containing tequila, citrus juice and an orange liqueur can be traced back to the Café Royal Cocktail Book in 1937, well before this combination was published as a margarita. Named the Picador, its makeup is undoubtedly a tequila daisy, and at 2:1:1 parts respectively, it follows the classic formula of a margarita. A British invention then? Perhaps.
You need to make sure your tequila is 100% agave, meaning it is made entirely using the nectar from the agave plant. Look out for brands that carry this statement, they’ll display it on their bottle proudly. Those not carrying the statement often use a percentage of agave, alongside other ‘spirit’ and can use artificial colourings and sweeteners.
Nick Caputo, bartender and ambassador for Fords Gin, champions Ocho, Tapatio and Cabeza, as these brands are committed to the ethical preservation of the agave plant. This is crucially important for the sustainability of the tequila category, as the agave plant is very specific in terms of where it will grow, and takes time to mature ready to harvest for tequila production (at least seven to eight years).
While classic margarita are made with blanco unaged tequila, you can play around with tequilas that are aged in barrels to change the character of your cocktail. Nicole Sykes, from The Voyage of Buck in Edinburgh, explains: “Blanco tequilas will be more robust whereas aged tequilas, like reposado, will be a little sweeter, creamier and more caramel-like due to the time they have spent in barrels.” For more on Mexican firewater, read our review of the best tequila.
The fresher the better says Michael Sutherland from the Reverend JW Simpson in London. Nick Caputo agrees: “If it’s not fresh, you’ll end up with something that is more of a candied sugary mess than fresh and light.”
Sophie Bratt, from the OXO Tower in London, is currently competing in a global cocktail competition to create the best twist on a margarita with Patrón Tequila. She’s therefore got more than a few top tips up her sleeve. When it comes to limes she suggests rolling them first to make them easier to juice, and cut them on the diagonal rather than straight through the middle. You’ll get more juice this way.
Using a piece of kit called a Mexican elbow makes it incredibly easy to juice limes as you’re making the cocktail with minimal fuss or mess. You’ll also be able to squeeze directly into your cocktail measure rather than having to use another glass. Great for reducing the amount of washing-up for later!
The classic margarita is sweetened using an orange-based liqueur, such as a triple sec or curaçao. Cointreau is perhaps the most famous of these and most commonly used. However, so long as your liqueur uses fresh ingredients rather than artificial flavourings, Nick says you’re on to a winner.
The classic margarita has salt on the rim. Sophie recommends a half rim so that people can alternate between salt and no salt to suit their tastes. As Nick explains: “The salt will enhance the flavours carried from the alcohol and work to soften the acidity from the lime juice, without needing to add excess sweetening agents.”
To salt the rim of the glass, put some sea salt on to a dinner plate (Michael advocates spending a little more money to make sure you’ve got a quality salt for your drinks), coat the outside of the rim of the glass with lime juice using a wedge, and then gently roll the glass in the salt. Take a napkin to gently wipe off any salt which has become stuck to the inside of the glass too.
If you’re having trouble with the salt sticking, you can use agave syrup (the syrup from the agave plant) instead of lime juice to really get the salt to stick. This top tip from Sophie will ensure you get a photo-perfect rim of salt, especially useful if you want to Instagram your creation. It can take a bit of practice to get this right though, agave is very sticky!
A margarita is a shaken cocktail. This is important as you need to make sure that the spirit and liqueur are well combined with the citrus. It’s also important to properly aerate the cocktail, but you need to be careful not to over-dilute. Nick recommends you stop shaking before it sounds like the ice has been smashed to shards, you should hear the change as your cocktail shaker (or jam jar if you don’t have a shaker) moves backwards and forwards to the side of your head – so be sure to listen carefully!
Classic margarita recipe
30ml lime juice
25ml triple sec or curaçao
Shake all the ingredients with ice and double-strain into a martini glass with a salted rim. Garnish with a lime wheel or wedge on the side of the glass (this has the added benefit that you can use it to remove the salt rim if you decide you don’t want it!).
Twists and variations
There are many twists and variations on the margarita, from adding fruit, to serving it frozen by blending with ice, perfect for summer time. The most famous twist on a margarita that involves changing the actual ingredients is unquestionably the Tommy’s margarita. Created by tequila legend Julio Bermejo at Tommy’s restaurant in San Francisco, the now-iconic Tommy’s margarita features agave syrup in place of curaçao. This has the benefit of being softer and more complementary to the flavours from the tequila, allowing them to sing, rather than mask them. Otherwise the formula remains the same. However it’s also served on the rocks (over ice) rather than in a martini glass and does not feature salt on the rim.
30ml lime juice
25ml agave syrup (50:50 mixture of agave syrup and water)
Shake all the ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lime wheel.
A great twist championed by Nick Caputo is the Toreador, which switches out the triple sec for apricot brandy to give a fruity twist. Shaken and strained into a chilled cocktail glass, this one comes ungarnished. Michael Sutherland is a fan of switching the tequila for mezcal, which is also produced from the agave plant, but introduces a cooking step, giving a smoky flavour. Think of it like tequila’s bolder, smokier older brother. Mezcal margaritas therefore work better if you make them ‘Tommy’s style’, using the Tommy’s ratios above using agave syrup.
More on margaritas…
How do you make your margarita? We’d love to hear your tricks and techniques…