An In-Depth Guide to the Margarita

Make your best Margarita yet.

An In-Depth Guide to the Margarita

Make your best Margarita yet.

There are few if any mixed drinks in the cocktail canon that can match the Margarita’s balance of simplicity, versatility, and complexity. At face value, it’s an easygoing mix of Mexico’s native spirit with a bit of orange liqueur, a squeeze of fresh lime, and a pinch of salt on the rim of a glass. 

But look just a bit deeper, and the Margarita can offer a masterclass in cocktail construction—and a fascinating lesson in how quickly the idea of a cocktail can transform into hundreds of different ways of making it.

With a decade or so of craft bartending under my belt, I’m happy to share an in-depth look at what makes the Margarita near and dear to my heart. Whether you’re a seasoned tequila drinker or a total newcomer to agave spirits, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know to make your best Margarita yet.

A Brief History of the Margarita

About four decades before Jimmy Buffett was wasting away in Margaritaville, searchin’ for his long lost shaker of salt, the Margarita was making its way onto the burgeoning cocktail scene. 

But as with many of our favorite classic cocktails, the Margarita’s exact origins have been lost in the fabric of hard-drinking folklore. Who would have thought that it’s hard to keep dates and facts straight when you’re a historian of hard liquor?

Perhaps the tidiest explanation for the Margarita’s origins comes courtesy of cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, in his excellent book Imbibe! “Margarita” is the Spanish word for “daisy,” which also happens to be the name of a family of cocktails popularly made with brandy at the time (the Sidecar is another classic example of a Daisy). Substitute tequila for the brandy and give it a Spanish name, and voilà—a brand new cocktail is born.

Conflicting accounts put the Margarita in Tijuana, Mexico as early as 1936—but honestly, the story behind this is so filled with “he said, she said” and a complete lack of recipes that I’m fine with ignoring it entirely. Short of building a time machine, it appears that the exact origins of the Margarita will continue to be lost to history.

An In Depth Guide to the Margarita_making your first

The Basics: Making Your First Margarita

If you’ve already been drinking Margaritas for a while now, I can almost guarantee that the recipe I’ll be giving here is not what you’re used to.

In this regard, as in many others, I am a classic cocktail purist—which in practice means that I’m against adding extra sweetener to classic recipes. Made at restaurants and bars, the Margarita is particularly prone to being dosed with extra simple syrup, or worse, bottled sour mix (please don’t ever do this).

To make your first classically-styled Margarita, you’ll need just a few things:

  • A high quality blanco tequila (Espolòn Blanco is affordable and delicious)
  • A high quality orange liqueur (Cointreau is a great standby)
  • Fresh squeezed lime juice
  • Natural salt (for the rim)

That’s in addition to the usual cocktail setup: A shaker tin, jigger or measuring cup, hawthorne strainer, ice, and glassware. If you have none of these, Cocktail Kingdom has a top quality Cocktail Essentials Kit and Ice Tray Set.

This is the recipe that I still use for making (classic) Margaritas, refined over 10 years and thousands of iterations:

  • 5 parts blanco tequila
  • 3 parts orange liqueur
  • 2 parts fresh lime juice

You’ll shake those vigorously with ice, and then strain the resulting cocktail into a glass that’s been given a half-rim of salt. To rim your glass with salt, cut a lime in half and rub it on the outside of the lip of the glass, then roll the outside of that lip in a small pile of salt that’s been poured on a plate. Please never use one of those stacking foam glass rimmers; on top of being gross, they get salt on the inside of the rim of the glass, which you don’t want.

You might notice that I haven’t specified what type of glass to use, or whether to serve the drink over ice. There’s a good reason for that: It’s entirely up to personal preference, and there is no “right” way to drink even a classic Margarita. I prefer mine served up in a coupe, but most people I know enjoy drinking them on the rocks in an old fashioned glass.

What’s In A Name? Many Ways to Make A Tequila Sour

Does the above recipe look a little bit sparse to you? Where are the simple syrup, the fruit flavors, the blender? If you’ve been to a bar in the past 30 years or so, I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen something called a Margarita that uses any or all of these in combination.

Here’s why I stick to a simple three-ingredient-plus-salted-rim recipe: The Margarita is a Tequila Daisy (as explained in the history section) with a salted rim, and a Daisy originally called for just those things. When you start adding more ingredients, you may get a delicious Tequila Sour of some sort—but in my mind, it’s no longer a real Margarita.

Does that mean you shouldn’t make the drink to your liking, even if that includes plenty of added sweetener and extra ingredients? Absolutely not, and I encourage you to drink your Tequila Sours however you’d like. The difference is primarily semantic.

But if you’ve never experienced the joy of drinking a sublimely balanced, classic Margarita, might I suggest that you start with the recipe I’ve provided above? Then if it’s truly not to your tastes, feel free to change it to make a drink more to your liking.

Understanding Each Part of the Margarita

Getting past the basics of what you need to make a Margarita, you’ll start to notice that even small changes to the base ingredients and techniques can yield big changes in the final flavor. Let’s dive deeper into the specifics of how to choose the absolute best elements to make your perfect Margarita.

In Depth Guide to the Margarita_The Spirit_Espolon Blanco
Espolon Blanco

The Spirit

Without tequila, there is no Margarita—it’s that essential to the drink. Simply put, there’s no replacing the unique flavor that this agave spirit adds to the Margarita.

Exactly which tequila you use, though, will determine how clean, bright, complex, and interesting your Margarita turns out to be.

First things first: You should only stock your bar with 100 percent agave tequilas. So-called mixtos (looking at you, Jose Cuervo) are only legally required to have agave spirits as 51 percent of their total volume; the rest is filler alcohol.

After that, you’ll need to decide on what age of tequila suits you best. They are as follows:

  • Blanco, bottled immediately after distillation
  • Reposado, aged for two to twelve months in oak
  • Añejo, aged one to three years in oak
  • Extra Añejo, aged longer than three years in oak

In my experience, blanco tequila is the king of spirits for making a perfect Margarita. That’s because it hasn’t had any time to soak up the caramel and vanilla flavors of oak—or its bitter tannins. Making a Margarita with a blanco tequila gives the cleanest, freshest taste overall.

But opinions and preferences differ, and I think there’s a place for older tequilas in Margaritas as well. Reposado tequila often has a tropical fruit tone to it, and añejo and extra añejo tequilas take on more vanilla and spice tones. 

It’s worth noting here, though, that the older a tequila gets, the pricier it gets as well. Blanco tequila balances mixability and affordability, making it my first choice for most cocktails.

In Depth Guide to the Margarita_The Sweetener_Cointreau

The Sweetener

Orange liqueur is the only sweetener that’s used in a classic Margarita. But not just any orange liqueur will do—you really do need to stick with a traditional triple sec like Cointreau or Combier. Cheaper orange liqueurs tend to be heavily sweetened in comparison, and lack the bitter/sweet/aromatic combination of true triple secs.

Among professional bartenders, the sweetener is the most contentious portion of a Margarita recipe. Some hold the opinion that using only orange liqueur leads to a bland drink that’s not in balance; adding a little bit of simple syrup, by this reasoning, helps to bring out the rest of the flavors in the drink.

You’ll also find a contingent that advocates for using agave nectar—either on its own, or in addition to the orange liqueur. At this point, you’re deviating pretty far from the classic recipe and introducing a new flavor entirely (the agave nectar has a particular aroma and sweetness that’s easy to detect in the drink).

Are either of these “wrong”? No, as they can both lead to making a delicious drink. But I find both to be somewhat misguided, as they’re often added without taking the freshness of the lime juice into account. Basically, the worse the quality of your lime juice, the more you’ll want to add a little sweetness to make a balanced drink.

In Depth Guide to the Margarita_The Citrus

The Citrus

So what constitutes truly top quality lime juice? Talk to a dozen bartenders, and you’ll have a hung jury on what the “best” lime juice is and how to get it. (At this point you may be thinking that bartenders can’t agree on much, and you’d be absolutely correct.)

For the recipe I’ve provided above that sticks to as few ingredients as possible, the quality and freshness of the lime juice is paramount. Here’s how I get the best lime juice possible for a classic Margarita recipe:

  • Choose good limes to begin with. Look for plump limes that are easy to squeeze in your hand, with a vibrant green color. Each lime you juice should have a pleasant aroma when you scratch the rind with your fingernail.
  • Cut and squeeze the limes to order for each drink. Don’t juice them beforehand and store the juice in the fridge until you need it, as it will lose a fresh brightness that’s integral to the drink.
  • Always squeeze the limes by hand. This helps the essential oils from the skin to mingle with the juice, giving a brighter and zestier aroma.
Maldon Flake Sea Salt

The Salt

Though often left as an afterthought when making a Margarita, your choice of the salt that goes on a Margarita’s rim can make or break the drink.

Please do not use iodized (table) salt. It’s over processed and has a tendency to leave a sickly chemical aftertaste.

Natural sea salts and rock salts are a much, much better choice. They have a purity and crispness of flavor that’s impossible to beat with generic salt options. Try Maldon flake sea salt for your next Margarita, and I can guarantee you’ll see a huge difference.

When serving the drink to yourself, feel free to salt as much of the rim as you’d like. But if serving to another person, I recommend only salting half the rim of the glass (as outlined in an above section). This gives them the option of having sips with salt and sips without, to see how your fancy and carefully chosen salt affects the overall flavor of the drink.

The Preparation

No matter what exact recipe you use, a good shake is key to making a properly mixed margarita. 

The larger the ice cubes you can use in your cocktail shaker, the better—this will preserve the balance of chill to dilution and make for a bold, vibrant drink.

Shake hard for at least 20 seconds before straining and serving your Margarita. Putting in this extra effort will fully aerate the drink, bringing its aromatics to the fore.

Use a single Hawthorne strainer if serving over ice, or double strain if serving up. 

Putting It All Together: Perfecting Your Margarita

Using the guidelines provided above, you have everything you need to fine tune a Margarita to your personal preferences. 

Keep in mind that just as with food, your tastes for cocktails will change over time. So if you please, try the classic (less sweet) version first—and if you don’t enjoy it much, come back to it in a few months’ time to see if your palate has changed.

No matter what recipe you land on, I wish you the best in crafting the perfect Margarita for you and your loved ones. If you have any questions or would like to yell at me for being far too opinionated on classic cocktails, scream your thoughts into the void, as we don’t check our social media.

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