Apparently, February 22nd is National Margarita Day - not in my nation, sure, but I'm not going to let the opportunity slip by. I can even make this kinda topical.
One of my roles at work is administering our back-of-house systems and among the many charming foibles of our back-office setup are the classic cocktail recipes that were put on the tills way back before I even joined the company. Some of those recipes include products we don't stock anymore. Some of those recipes include products I don't think are made anymore.
Somewhere in that mess is the Margarita and it's on the list of recipes I'm revising to reflect our current backbar offering. With that said, there is a sense in which the Margarita defies standardisation. It's rare to be able to pinpoint the creation of a classic cocktail to particular decade, never mind a bar or bartender. The Margarita is almost the complete opposite; there is no shortage of potential origins. My copy of diffordsguide (seventh edition) lists six and it doesn't even mention Rita Hayworth.
It's entirely possible that all Margarita origin stories are true. It's too simple, too obvious a formula not to have emerged pretty much by itself. For what it's worth, I've always tended to think of the Margarita as a descendent of largely forgotten Daisy. For me, the compelling evidence is in the inclusion of orange liqueurs in the Daisy formula coupled with the Spanish translation of the word 'daisy'.
As if it wasn't enough that we can't agree on its provenance, the Margarita resists formalisation because it comes in so many different forms. It comes straight-up (with or without a salt rim), frozen, on the rocks, in a bottle (so, so many different bottles); it's even available in a handy powder! But that's not to say we don't know where to start.
One, Tequila. Two, lime. Three, orangeyness. Outside of that, it's basically a crap shoot. I'm keeping our Margaritas straight up because I like the idea of it as a short, sharp refresher. If it's a blended drink then it will be colder than it would be shaken and it will be sweeter to compensate for the increased dilution (see the recent post on Painkiller's Tiki Research blog about the difficulty of balancing a blended daiquiri for reference) and those two factors tend to overpower the Tequila.
(There is a school of thought that this is why, in fact, the frozen Margarita endures - it puts the Tequila in a background which is great for people whose enjoyment of the spirit has been ruined by too many shots from a bottle with worm in the bottom and a plastic sombrero on the top.)
As far as the Tequila goes, I prefer a blanco for much the same reason that I prefer white rum in a Daiquiri or Mojito. It's fresh and vibrant, not that reposados and añejos are without their charms. The sharp vegetal notes pair well with the acidity of fresh lime juice. So far, so good. When it comes to the orange factor, things start getting complicated.
Orange liqueur often seems to serve a dual purpose in a Margarita. It's there for flavour, for sure, but it's regularly used as the sole sweetening agent as well. This is a problem for this specific Margarita - not Margaritas in general, just this one - because the point of this exercise is to define a recipe I can sell and using three full measures of liquor at 40% ABV simply isn't cost-effective.
(Put it this way - putting 50ml of good Tequila and 25ml of Cointreau in a drink means I'm going to charge £10 in order to make a decent margin. That's before we consider that three units of alcohol is a hefty amount of booze for a single drink, given the human body can - in general - only process one unit of alcohol in an hour.)
With that in mind, I'm going to buck convention and put in less than a full measure of orange liqueur - I'm going for a Cointreau which has a nice balance between orange flavour and sweetness, with a degree of strength to it. Grand Marnier works well with añejo Tequila but the Cognac base usually seems to overpower a blanco in my experience. Other orange liqueurs are available.
With less orange liqueur than is perhaps traditional, I'd be tempted to add a splash of orange bitters to create some depth in that flavour note and we've still got to address the question of sweetness. The obvious addition is a touch of agave syrup, as pioneered in the Tommy's Margarita. Again, it comes back to depth of flavour - it complements the Tequila without competing with it.
The final question is that of the salt rim. Let's be clear, a salt rim is an utter pain, particularly when you've got customers four-deep at the bar but it's a key part of the drink. It's the distinctive flourish that makes the drink memorable. However, saltiness as a flavour can throw off the balance of the drink. Curiously enough, it will make the drink seem sweeter, so we can compensate by skewing the formula ever so slightly more sour and by only applying salt around half of the rim. That way, the customer gets to choose whether the rim is decorative or functional in the flavour profile.
The Margarita is not, of course, the only drink with a long history and a longer list of variations. I think it's the variations that help it endure - we look at them, compare them, and in doing so, we get to see what makes it tick. What makes it great.
(Stuffing a lime wedge on the side of the glass does not make it great. Please stop it.)
35ml blanco Tequila
1 barspoon agave syrup
1 dash orange bitters
25ml fresh lime juice
Apply salt around half of a martini glass' rim. Shake all ingredients with ice and fine-strain into the salt-rimmed glass. Express a twist of lime zest over the top of the drink and discard.