If you think margaritas are neon green, sweet as a birthday cake, and served in glasses the size of a fishbowl, it's time to erase that image from your memory. Although chain restaurants may have given the drink a bad name, "some of the first accepted versions of the margarita included tequila, lime juice, and orange liqueur," says Javier Carreto, bartender at Industry Kitchen.
"Somewhere in the history of the margarita, people started adding sugar to make the cocktail easier to drink and more appealing to those who found tequila a bit too harsh. It eventually became standard for most bars to add simple syrup or sugary fruit concentrates to their margaritas," he says. "But margarita drinkers are looking for healthy versions of this happy, festive cocktail."
If that's you, the next time you want to shake things up, try these easy tricks to upgrade your margarita with new tastes and less sugar. We're talkin' flavors so good you wouldn't dream of trying to mask them. (Related: This Strawberry Margarita Smoothie Is Perfect for Cinco de Mayo)
1. Use the right tequila.
In Mexico, the preferred style of tequila is unaged, which is labeled as "silver," "blanco," or "plata," explains Gates Otsuji, cofounder of Swig + Swallow. "Even master distillers will tell you that the purest expression of sweet, roasted agave, in the youngest bottling, is their favorite," he says.
2. Swap in mezcal.
Replace the tequila with a good mezcal to add a little smoke to your drink, says Carlos Terraza, bar manager at Barrio Chino in New York City. He recommends Mezcales de Leyenda.
3. Squeeze your own limes.
A little elbow grease goes a long way in margs. "We're all-natural at Swig + Swallow, so we juice all our own citrus. When citrus juice sits exposed to air and/or heat, it develops an unpleasant bite in its taste, and too many margaritas are loaded with sugar in an attempt to cover that up," Otsuji says. Rather than using the juice in those plastic limes, squeeze your own. "Once you taste the difference, you'll never go back," Otsuji adds.
4. Try other citrus fruits.
"Layer in grapefruit, yuzu, or Meyer lemons to create variations and add softness," Otsuji says.
5. Be smart about sweeteners.
You need some sugar in almost every cocktail. "In your margarita, it helps balance the acids from the citrus and pull the sweetness from the tequila through to the finish," Otsuji explains. But rather than pouring in the simple syrup, use one dime-size drop of agave per drink, he recommends. "Because agave nectar comes from the same plant [as tequila], they complement each other wonderfully," Terraza says.
6. Add orange liqueur.
Not everyone adds orange liqueur to margs, but some say it's a must. "Whether you're going Cadillac-style with Grand Marnier or just using triple sec, you need that orange flavor, or else you're just having a tequila gimlet," Otsuji says. "Unfortunately, a splash of orange juice won't do you any favors, because what you want from the orange liqueur is a separate layer of citrus and a tiny hint of floral bitterness so gentle that you probably don't even notice it."
7. Go crazy for carrots.
Yes, carrots. At Flinders Lane, beverage director and co-owner Chris McPherson serves a spiced carrot margarita that combines chili-infused tequila, mezcal, fresh carrot juice, fresh lime juice, and cardamom-infused simple syrup. Try adding one ounce of carrot juice for every two ounces of booze for a drink that's bright, savory, spicy, and smoky.
8. Get your green on.
If carrots are a little too earthy for you, add your favorite green juice. "We add a heavy dash of green juice, which has kale, spinach, celery, cucumber, ginger, and apple juice, as our signature twist," says Robyn Gray, head bartender at Rosewood Hotel Georgia. He then rims the glass with salt and cracked black peppercorn.
9. Heat things up.
Craving a spicy marg but can't find chili-infused tequila? It's easier to simply muddle a little jalapeño in the shaker, then add your other ingredients. Add more or less, depending on how much kick you can stand.
10. Let your taste buds run wild.
"Fresh herbs like basil, mint, cilantro, or shiso will all fare well in a classic margarita, and they also taste great with chili peppers," Otsuji says. "Often you don't even need to break out the muddler; simply clap the leaves between your hands before putting them in the shaker."
11. Work your biceps.
Shake your drink really, really well. "The ice dilutes the ingredients, and when you do a good shake, that frothiness tells you that the cocktail is at the best temperature and is ready to drink," Terraza says.
12. Don't forget the salt.
"A little salt on the rim of your glass, or a pinch thrown into your shaker, adds dimension to the interplay of sweet and sour, keeping your palate interested the whole time," Otsuji explains. You can add another element to your drink by mixing the salt with a little chili powder, cayenne, or cumin. "You'll smell it right before you take a sip, and it will add a kick to the experience," he says.
After shaking, strain your margarita into a container and place it in the freezer. This way it'll be perfectly balanced when it defrosts, Otsuji says. And then you have the perfect slush to beat the heat in summer.