Ask the Janitor – South of the Border edition.

A question submitted from Twitter:

Why the hell can’t I get a clean, simple marg instead of a sugar bomb at most places?

–Suburban Marg Huntress**

**For the short answer and to skip all of my blovating, scroll to the bottom.

Margaritas terrify me.  Everyone has secret recipes and tricks that make theirs the best cocktail.  Tricks such as sneaking Everclear into your batch to royally f*ck everyone up make me shudder.  Others, such as a splash of orange juice to heighten the orange flavors in the classic drink, make sense. Janitor, tequila cocktails

First, a little bit of history, and only a little, because there’s not much out there in the definitive realm about the origins of the Margarita.  Most likely the Margarita was a permutation of Tequila Daisies and Tequila Sidecars that would have popped up in the 1930s; Americans were thirsty coming out of prohibition and were willing to try anything.  A certain liquor company heavily promotes the history that the drink was invented by a bartender in a nation drinks competition in 1948 naming the drink for his ladyfriend, Miss Margarita.  Good story, probably not true.

In Margarita-making circles there are two paths in which the road turns. Path number one is the Tequila Daisy path: Tequila, Lime, Triple-sec or Curacao. (Side note: Daisy in Spanish is Margarita, so if you have a Tequila Daisy, which seems to be the most logical route for the name.)  Path two would be the Tequila Sour path: Tequila, Lime, (Agave) Syrup. Path two’s rise is attributed to Julio Bermejo and his tavern Tommy’s in San Francisco. While different cocktails, these two drinks both solve a common drinking conundrum: making booze palatable.

The standard spec for a Tequila Daisy would read:

  • 1.5 oz Tequila
  • 1.0 oz lime juice
  • 0.5-0.75 oz Triple Sec (to taste)
    Shake and strain into a cocktail glass with a salted rim*

    *why salt? NaCl can blunt the perception of bitter on the palate and is going to increase the perception of lime as well.  Poorer quality tequilas would benefit from a dash of salt.

A spec for Tommy’s Margarita:

  • 2.0 oz Tequila
  • 0.5-0.75 oz Lime
  • 0.5-0.75 oz Agave Nectar
    Rocks and half salted rim

In earlier posts I have referenced David Embury and his book “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” as a critical tome that influences how I think about making cocktails. Agave-based spirits are some of the most complex in the world, their scarcity and complexity would suggest careful handling.  Barely enough lime to round off the edges and just enough sweetness to balance any latent tartness from the lime.  Poor Margaritas exist because people take shortcuts in finding good tequila.  A lot of bar managers will cut corners using genetically modified organism (GMO) tequilas, mixtos, or other inferior products that need serious manipulation to be palatable.  You’re setting yourself up for a double hangover.  The first of the hangovers will be from the terrible tequila.  The second because of the whopping dose of sugar needed to sweeten the excess lime which is there to cover up the terrible taste of the inferior tequila.

I personally prefer Tommy’s Margs to traditionally one both in taste and in philosophical reasons. Good tequila is an endangered species.  New Tequilas are entering the market every day with sales pitches that would make promoters of Protein-Infused Vodka blush. Tequilas that I look for are going to have a few similar technical attributes:

  1. The tequila will be 100% agave. 100% of the fermentable sugars will come from the agave plant.
  2. Fermentation of the agave should happen over the course of at least 24 hours preferably longer.  Anyone who has dealt with fermentation knows that this is when a large portion of flavor and aromatic compounds are going to be formed. Longer fermentation brings higher risk of something going wrong, but the flipside is that there is going to be more complexity in the final spirit.
  3. Twice-distilled. (Each subsequent distillation is going to remove flavor and place it one step closer to vodka.) Indifferently fermented mashes are going to be inferior irregardless of how good the distiller believes themselves to be. Lysol will not clean up a turd in the middle of the room, it’s still a turd covered in lysol.
  4. For aged versions, I always look for the presence of the original product there.  Tequila is very difficult to make; don’t try to cover up all of your failures and shame with oak.

**Short Answer: Most places don’t think about what they are doing when making a margarita.  They’ll fill a rocks glass with ice, pour a shot of shitty tequila into it, and top it off with sour mix from the gun. They call this thing a Margarita, but really it’s a prom-night-dumpster-baby.  If you see this behavior, order something else.  Don’t encourage them.  If you find yourself stranded in suburban hell and desperately need some tequila to take the edge off, order a Partida or Tequila Ocho on the rocks with a wedge of lime and squeeze the lime into the drink.  The tequila will be good enough to sip on its own and the slight bite from the lime will make for a refreshing drink.

Remember, friends don’t let friends drink crappy margaritas.

About Kevin Burke

Kevin is an occasional barman and fulltime practitioner of the Janitorial Arts at Colt & Gray.

  • Sean Buchan

    Awesome, awesome post. Nice job Kevin.