Last year, The Hold Steady passed through Champaign-Urbana, and I didn’t go to see them. I fell out with them over Boys and Girls in America, and, unfortunately, Stay Positive, the album they were touring in support of, wasn’t much of an improvement. I miss The Hold Steady of …Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday; I miss the stories about deadbeat dealers, barflies, and Christian girls who maybe died and maybe actually came back to life. Which is a long way of leading up to talking about one of their least known and best songs from their relatively early days, a number called “212-Margarita”, inspired, according to Craig Finn, their lead singer and creative spirit, by lawyers’ ads in the New York subway promising a big pay-off for, well, for someone. In it, Finn announces that he “like[s] the salt on the rims of the glasses, because that makes us thirsty, and when we drink we all fall in love.”
That line gets to something very true about The Margarita (and, no, I promise I’m not about to start philosophizing). The Margarita, as a drink, is as roundly abused and debased as any I’ve mentioned in this column before. It’s made with sweet and sour mix, with cheap tequila, without triple sec, and, surprisingly, it doesn’t matter. It’s still delicious. I think the salt’s the trick. The sweet and salty combination, with the weird vegetable spiciness of the tequila behind it, is one of the best things I’ve ever drunk. Not enough drinks pull a salt rim, and it comes as such a surprise that you’ve got no defenses. So, rather than spend a lot of time going over the inadequacies of most Margaritas you’ll find in the C-U area (of which there are many, although Radio Maria makes nice ones), I’m just going to tell you how to make a good one yourself, and let you decide if it’s worth the effort (I think it is).
To understand the Margarita’s history, it’s important to realize that it’s not a modern cocktail. It’s a member of the Daisy family of drinks, which consist of a base liquor, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. This family also includes the Sidecar, made of brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice, and the White Lady, which is the same as a Sidecar but with gin. In fact, “margarita” in Spanish means “daisy”. Hmm. It’s easy to imagine some late 19th or early 20th century cocktail aficionado running out of brandy and lemons near the southern border, picking up some climatically appropriate tequila and limes, and walking away into greatness. Tequila, which is often strangely salty on its own, must have been the inspiration for the rim. Wherever it came from, it’s a brilliant combination.
In order to make a really fantastic Margarita, you need to make sure you have decent tequila, decent orange liqueur, and fresh limes. Decent tequila means 100% blue agave —- if it doesn’t say that on the bottle, it’s likely that it’s up to 49% sugar-derived alcohol, meaning that it’ll taste less like agave and more like crap (it also will be cheap, and probably give you a hell of a hangover). 100% blue agave tequila comes in three ages: blanco, reposado, and añejo. Blanco is not aged in oak, although it may be rested in steel containers for some months, which will help soften its raw edge, but leave it uncolored. Reposado is aged in wood for three months to a year, and comes with some vanilla and spice overtones and a light straw color. Añejo is aged for one to three years in oak, and will usually be whiskey-colored, with much stronger caramel, maple, and vanilla overtones, although the best añejos retain some of the spicy, vegetal characteristics of the raw tequila. I personally enjoy using reposados for Margaritas, but many purists argue that you should only use blanco tequilas. In terms of brands, I’ve had great success with using Sauza Hornitos (their premium label) as a mixer; it’s sweeter and smoother than many tequilas, and, with its peachy nose, a great introduction to the variety of flavors that can be found in this under-appreciated spirit.
Orange liqueurs, in general, are made by infusing either a neutral spirit (in the case of triple secs and curaçaos) or a wood-aged spirits (like rum or brandy — think Grand Marnier) with orange zest and other aromatics. I recommend that, for most mixing purposes, and especially for Margaritas, you use a triple sec like Cointreau. It brings a pure, bright orange flavor without adding any muddying, wood-based characteristics. But Grand Marnier and other wood-influenced orange liqueurs are often delicious in their own right or as ingredients in the right cocktail.
I’ve covered squeezing fresh citrus juice before, and I maintain that it is essential for producing exemplary cocktails in general and Margaritas in particular.
- 1 1/2 oz tequila
- 1 oz orange liqueur
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- Kosher (coarse) salt
Pour several tablespoons of salt onto a small plate. Cut a small wedge of lime, rub the lip of a short glass with the lime, and twirl the glass’ lip through the salt in order to create a salt rim. Fill the salt-rimmed glass with ice and set aside. In a cocktail shaker, combine all other ingredients, shake well with ice, and strain into your prepared glass. Garnish with a small lime wedge if that gives you a thrill.
Margaritas are obviously best on a really hot summer afternoon, but their surprising complexity makes them an appropriate drink for any season. They’re an excellent reminder that, somewhere in the world, it’s warm and it’s cocktail hour.