How to Make Classic Margaritas

And Other Notes On Making Cocktails

Mixing cocktails is a funny thing. When you make a good drink, people frequently assume that you’ve got some special training or skill that is hard to acquire. I’m here to tell you that it just isn’t so.

My wife and I started making cocktails at home a few years ago, and we started small. I did some research and found some recipes for basic, classic cocktails, and learned to make them one at a time. Making cocktails isn’t some artisan thing, in my opinion. I mean, sure, if you’re creating all-new cocktail recipes, it can take a lot of trial and error, good taste, as well as a good knowledge of ingredients. That’s not what I’m talking about here: I’m talking about making a well-known classic drink.

Tip #1: Stick with the Classics

It’s really hard to outdo a classic recipe. By and large, what we found was that we vastly preferred simple cocktails with good (and when appropriate, fresh) ingredients.

It’s also about finding which base liquors you prefer for given circumstances. We found that we really like whiskey, but not vodka, for instance. Furthermore, we found that we preferred bourbon and rye whiskeys over other types of whiskey, including scotch. So, we started making the old fashioned and the manhattan. We found bottles we liked at a couple of different price points and flavor profiles, and now we keep those bottles on hand.

Tip #2: Practice Over Time, and Build Your Cabinet Slowly

This can get expensive, and we didn’t do it all at once. We bought a handful of ingredients and made one drink per evening, and just noted what we preferred. We revisited our top picks and narrowed them down over time. We’d by a new bottle every so often—a real drink is typically about two to three ounces, so a bottle can last a little while. Stick with it and you’ll eventually have a well-stocked liquor cabinet. While you’re doing this, I’d encourage you to take notes! If you don’t like a particular bottle in the drink you’re making, save it for later; unless you don’t like that type of liquor entirely, the specific bottle in question may work better in another drink.

Tip #3: Once You Have The Basics Down, Try Established Variations

Despite what it may look like, I’m not already contradicting tip #1: Some variations on a given classic have become classics in their own right. Once you can make a martini—I’d encourage you to start with the original gin cocktail, not the dry, vodka martini most people are familiar with—you can make a manhattan. More to the point of today’s post, the margarita—an undeniable modern classic cocktail—is arguably a variation of a sidecar. Heck, it’s now way more famous than the sidecar! (Aside: Both the margarita and sidecar belong to a class of cocktail known as a sour. Sours generally include a base spirit, a sweetener, and a citrus.) There are many more versions that are essentially the same as these cocktails; they mostly vary in their primary spirit.

Tip #4: Measure!

When you go to a bar, you’ll probably see bartenders pouring freehand, eyeballing ratios, etc. This is a bad idea, and you shouldn’t emulate it. This is something you do when you don’t have time to properly measure out your ingredients. Cocktails are small enough in volume that even a slight variation in your measurements can have a pretty drastic effect on the final drink. Measure your drinks, and you’ll be able to replicate your favorite ratios reliably. Also, while you’re learning to make drinks and experimenting with different recipes, feel free to make slight adjustments to the recipe to tune it to your taste. Take notes!

On to the Margarita (Finally!)

In celebration of Cinco de Mayo, today’s drink is the margarita. I vastly prefer it on the rocks over the slushy frozen version, which wasn’t true until I had one made at home with decent ingredients. While I still enjoy a frozen margarita once in a while, it’s almost always in a restaurant: most restaurants use cheap ingredients, so that’s a good time to have it frozen.

The recipe I use is as simple as it gets. As I said above, it’s essentially a sidecar, but with tequila and lime instead of cognac and lemon. (You really should try a sidecar if you haven’t had one.)

Many drink recipes are best expressed in ratios. The margarita I make uses a 3:2:1 ratio. That is: it’s three parts tequila; two parts Cointreau; and one part freshly-squeezed lime juice. To make a single drink, I use 1 ½ oz. tequila; 1 oz. Cointreau; and ½ oz. lime juice. To make enough to mostly fill a two-liter pitcher, I use 33 oz. tequila; 22 oz. Cointreau; and 11 oz. lime. You should get the idea now.

Note that this ratio makes a margarita that is one-half tequila. That’s a pretty stiff drink, which is as it should be in my opinion. Weaker margaritas tend to be too sweet, but this one—like most classics—highlights the primary ingredient: the tequila. The fact that it’s front-and-center is another great reason to experiment and find a tequila you really like. The strength of this ratio is another reason that I use three ounces as the size of a single serving: I don’t encourage over-drinking. If someone asks for a weaker drink, I make one with less margarita and more ice; I never make one with less tequila.

Combine the ingredients in a shaker with plenty of ice; shake until very cold, and strain into a glass of fresh ice. Don’t forget to salt the rim, if you like the extra pucker it adds (I do), and garnish with a lime wedge. If you’re feeling fancy, use a martini glass. For a less formal occasion, just use a regular rocks glass.

If you’re making a pitcher, I recommend making it the night before and keep it in the freezer (the alcohol will keep it from freezing in that short a time). The colder the margarita, the better, and this is one advantage to making them in bulk. Serving is the same as before: shake over ice, strain over fresh ice in a glass with a salted rim.

You might be wondering what tequila to use, and what Cointreau is. I tend to use a silver tequila, usually something reasonably priced; my go-to is Milagro silver. I like the sharper bite and spice of silver tequilas in margaritas; it offsets the sweetness of the rest of the ingredients nicely. It’s easy to substitute more aged tequilas to mellow the drink out a little.

Cointreau is a brand of triple sec; arguably the triple sec. Triple sec has gotten a bad enough rap that the maker of Cointreau seems to have distanced itself from the term, but it’s essentially an orange liqueur. Grand Marnier is another brand that you might use, but I don’t like it in this application as well as Cointreau. Cointreau is expensive, but you can really taste the difference when compared to other triple secs. Some people take to jumping through hoops to make some other sweetener for this part of the recipe, but more often than not, that leads to inconsistent drinks. Save a little on the tequila if you have to (but not too much), and splurge on the Cointreau.

So there you have it: 3:2:1, the best way to make a classic margarita.