You Deserve A Drink: The Margarita

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As I sit down to write this post, Thanksgiving is a mere two days away.  Grocery outlets are preparing for their busiest days of the year as home cooks get ready to adorn their tables with the cold weather classics: turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, etc.  And though today in Portland it's an uncharacteristically dry and balmy 48, there is no denying that fall has all but fallen.  The leaves on even the most sturdy of trees have lost their grip, and those that remain have dulled from their brightest orange to a dead brown.  When the wind picks up, it blows cold.  Even at its midday zenith, the increasingly attenuated sunlight looks like what David Foster Wallace describes as "seeming to be behind several panes of glass."  The year-round stocking cap wearers have been swallowed up by normal society.  Winter is here.  All this leads to the obvious question:

Why in the hell am I writing a post on margaritas?

It's a good question.  After all, a quick margarita based word association would be something like: sunshine, the beach, Jimmy Buffet, palm trees, cinco de mayo, summer, etc, i.e., the exact opposite of right now.  It is decidedly not margarita weather, it won't be for months, and that's exactly why I want you to make a margarita.  Because if your past experience with Mexico's most popular imbibed export was anything like mine, those margaritas you associate with the smell of sunblock, well, they're shit.  Really.  They're a complete mockery of what a good margarita can be.  And that's a shame, because a margarita is a classic cocktail, as worthy of our attention as a manhattan or old fashioned.  And so what better time than now, when the weather makes you a bit uptight and persnickety, to get particular about a classic margarita cocktail?  The good news, they're quite easy to make.  Here's how.

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Step 1: Buy a cocktail shaker and two strainers.

Listen, if you don't already own this stuff I know you're going to be tempted to try and make drinks without them.  And you totally can.  But at best, you will only kind of succeed.  If you're using quality liquor (more on that later) then you should use proper tools.  This is one of those times when having the basic equipment is necessary if you want a quality product.  The good news, a whole shaker/strainer set-up like this runs about 20-ish bucks.  My personal preference is for basic shaking tins or a Boston shaker set-up, while I find cobbler shakers to be unnecessarily complicated and annoying.  

As for strainers, a Hawthorne strainer (the bottom left of the picture) is all you really need.  It keeps nearly all of the broken up ice out of your drink.  BUT, I personally hate little chunks of ice in my drink.  With very few exceptions, I like to drink my cocktail, not chew it, thus, I always double strain through a tea strainer.  

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Step 2: Buy liquor.  

You're going to need two bottles: tequila and triple sec.  The quality of each, unsurprisingly, will determine the quality of your final margarita.  The good news is that like all mixed drinks that include sugar and citrus, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to how much the final flavor is improved by the fanciness of the liquor included.  In other words, assuming you prefer the higher priced liquor when sipped on its own, a margarita made with a $50 tequila will ultimately be tastier than one made with a $20 bottle, but it also probably won't be worth it.  Because, generally speaking, while the jump in quality is vast when you double the price of a $10 bottle, once you're working with decent tequila, the improvements in the final cocktail become much more subtle.  In fact, the additional ingredients in the drink can actually dull what made that more expensive tequila worth the extra money in the first place.  

What's decent tequila?  Well, personal taste aside, always at least buy something that is 100% agave (which means no Jose Cuervo).  El Jimador and Lunazul are perfectly acceptable brands under $20 that reach that standard.  At the next step up, I currently have a bottle of Milagro silver at home that I like very much (despite the fact that the bottle looks like it was designed in a mall).  All that said, if you want to shake in some Don Julio Anejo, be my guest, but you won't be so much better off than if you poured from a $20 bottle of, let's say, Altos Reposado.  

That brings up another point, buy whatever style of tequila you like. While an un-aged silver and an aged reposado will add different flavors to the final drink, both leave you with something completely delicious.  So feel free to experiment.  

As for triple sec, the same rule applied to quality of tequila can be used here.  Shoot for the middle.  Cointreau is indeed delicious, but not so much so that it's worth the extra $20 over Combier Orange or Patron Citronge.  If you want to get classy, go for it, but don't feel like you have to.  Just stay away from the crap stuff on the bottom shelf, and you'll be great.

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Step 3: Juice a lime.

Using fresh lime juice is 100% non-negotiable.  End of story.  

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Step 4: Additional sweetener?

Technically all you need to make a great margarita is tequila, triple sec, and lime.  Triple sec is sweet after all, and it does the job of balancing out the lime juice splendidly.  BUT, a dash of demerara simple or agave syrup can add a nice complexity to the sweet elements in the drink.  Complexity is fun sometimes.  So keep that in mind.  

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Step 5: Salt?

I love salt on the rim of my margarita, but I not for every sip, so I salt only half the rim.  It's easy to do.  Simply run the edge of one of your juiced limes around half the rim of your glass. dip that part in salt, and...

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...magic.

Step 6: Make the damn drink already.

Fill your glass with ice and set aside.  Now in the smaller of the two shaking tins, add the following:

  • 2 oz tequila
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 oz triple sec
  • 1/4 oz 2:1 demerara syrup
  • a big ass scoop/handful of ice

Keep in mind, none of these proportions are written in stone.  This is not THE margarita recipe, it's A margarita recipe.  One that I like very much.  I say, start here, then search out other recipes online or in cocktail books.  Make those too.  Decide what you like.  (Oh, and you can like more than one recipe too, it's not a competition.)

Whatever recipe you go with, top your shaker with the bigger shaker, flip it over, and give it a good shake for ten or so seconds.  At work I shake for less than that because the ice I use has been sitting in an ice well all night and slowly melting, meaning it's covered in water and immediately goes about diluting the drink.  But at home you're likely getting ice directly from the freezer, meaning you'll have to do some extra shaking to get everything chilled and diluted.  Good news, this is actually preferable, so technically you have the ability to make a superior drink at home than at nearly all but the very best equipped cocktail bars.  

Need a visual on how to shake a drink?  Watch this video.  

Stain this whole mess over the ice in your glass and enjoy.  Congratulations, you just made a proper margarita.  A delicious cocktail that, unlike its unsavory counterparts, doesn't require an antibiotic at the free clinic or a trip to the cleaners to get vomit out of your clothes.  Spring break!!

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