This is about learning something new. Solving a tiny personal mystery. (How to make a really good margarita.)
It’s amazing that living in Texas all these years I have never made a Margarita from scratch before. I’ve used mixers. (some realllly good mixers) And, I’ve had margaritas in a LOT of bars and cafés and eateries and especially Mexican / Tex-Mex / New Mex restaurants.
And somehow, in all those years, I never learned to make one of my favorite drinks.
Part of it was shyness. I have a long history of reading to find answers instead of talking to people to find answers. Especially since the advent of the internet — you can find almost everything if you’re a good hunter (researcher.)
Hunt for what? I know. Margaritas are easy. They must be. Everybody and their dog in Texas makes margaritas.
Part of it was not knowing anything about tequila. (In the end — vodka is easy. Tequila is hard.) And then there’s that will-o-the-wisp second liquor. Triple-sec? What’s that? Orange? Grand Marnier?
So I went to my reliable liquor store (Doc’s Liquor Store! Gotta love a liquor store named Doc’s…..) and finally I asked.
Turns out — there’s a little sleight of hand in the tequila trade. Did you know that liquors labeled simply “tequila” — only need be 51% agave tequila? (real, as opposed to some other liquor. Agave is the plant actual tequila is made from.) So just tequila is not really tequila at all. Just enough agave to be the primary liquor in the tequila drink. Most likely, the rest is just grain alcohol.
Also — any of these “not really tequila” bottles that have a golden-colored liquor in them are colored with food coloring. So anything that calls itself John Smith’s (or whatever name is used) Tequila Gold — is just 51% tequila + grain alcohol + FDC Yellow #3. Oh Boy!!!
What you have to look for is on the label (usually in Spanish.) First you’re looking for 100% agave. That’s the only thing that will give you the buttery, recognizable tequila taste. If it’s designated as “silver” — or just looks clear in the bottle — then it’s tequila that was bottled when it was made. Filtered. Bottled. Done.
If the bottle says Reposado, then the tequila was aged in oak barrels (or mesquite, or pau d’arc, or whatever) for at least 2 months, but no more than 6 months. It should be pale yellow — just a bit of the oaken color/flavor/bite.
If the bottle says Anejo, then the tequila was aged at least 6 months, usually about 12 months — but it could be as long as 2-3 years. This is the really “golden” tequila. Often blended from a variety of tequilas — agave grown in different soils, different years etc. As with all agricultural products — the where, when, and how of agave growing is as important (or more important) than the transformation from fruit to spirit. Anejo has a stronger oak flavor, and a stronger agave flavor. It also may have a higher alcohol content.
Beyond the tequila, margaritas require an elusive 2nd liquor — an orange liquor. There are cheap, sharp-edged orange liquors. There are orange liquors made by the tequila companies. And there’s the grand-dad of all orange liquors — Grand Marnier. GM is so smooth that you might not even notice there’s alcohol in it. It’s a mildly sweet (not cloyingly sweet as with many) and mildly orange-y. Light, smooth, yummy…. And expensive.
So expensive, that I never broke down and bought a bottle until yesterday.
Which is silly, since I’ve come to embrace many “expensive” things in my life. But due to some mother issues, and the fact that I have often (mistakenly) thought of a margarita as a cheap drink — I just never indulged.
So this time — on a hot (102), dry (3% humidity), dusty, windy (30+mph) weekend — I bought the Patron Silver; I bought the Grand Marnier; and I used the lemons and raw sugar cubes I already had (did I mention that sugar with the molasses still in it gives you a little whiff of potassium to go with your Vitamin C?) — and I made the following Margarita:
1 part Patron Silver
1 part Grand Marnier
1 part fresh lime (or lemon) juice
1 part Perrier
4 raw sugar cubes
lots and lots of crushed ice
salt, to rim the glass, if desired
Technically, most Margaritas are made with still water. I just happen to really like mine with a few bubbles.
The bottom line? The taste I most often identify as being particularly “Margarita-ish” is actually the pure agave taste of good tequilla. All those years I’d been paying for Margarita Mix — what I was actually buying was the sweetness and the lime with a touch of yellow/blue (to make it that pleasing lime color.)
Well guess what? limes are lime color. And most margarita mixers are made with high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar — and certainly not raw / unrefined cane sugar that actually has some flavor of its own. Honey has flavor of its own. Brown sugar has a flavor of its own. High fructose corn syrup has a cheapness and shelf life of its own, but no natural flavor of its own.
If you go to a real bar with a real bartender instead of a chain mall-side mid-priced family restaurant with its own retail line of bar mixers, they will make your margarita (and any other sweet drink) with simple syrup (which is made from water and cane sugar.) That’s a good choice. Like Coca Cola made for most world markets (except the USA) — the “real thing” is made with cane. But for the US, with its addiction to cheap, fast and easy — corn syrup is the alternative.
Even Coke for the Mexican market is still made with real sugar (you can get it here in Texas.) So indulge. Make your own Raw Margarita. Or just a simple-syrup margarita.
They’re common and in every restaurant because they’re easy. Not cheap (if they’re real.) But easy.