DENVER – What makes a good margarita? That’s easy: high-quality tequila, fresh lime juice and orange liqueur.
(If you really want to geek out about the formula, the International Bartenders Association defines the ratio as 7:4:3 – 50 percent tequila, 29 percent Cointreau triple sec and 21 percent fresh lime or lemon juice.)
Frozen or on the rocks, the margarita has become one of America’s favorite cocktails and a must drink on Cinco de Mayo.
But what makes a great margarita? There is no perfect recipe, but local bartenders and tequila connoisseurs agree it’s all in the fresh ingredients.
The basic margarita generally has three things – tequila, orange-flavored liquor such as Cointreau, and lime or lemon juice. It is often served with salt on the glass rim to balance the tartness and sweetness of the mix. But more and more bartenders such as JJ Ahern of El Camino Community Tavern in Denver’s West Highland neighborhood are walking away from this age-old recipe and taking this cocktail to a new level.
Ahern recently won a margarita contest in Mexico by creating a mix of lime, coconut, and tangerine and peach juices that he paired with silver tequila and agave nectar. This concoction was successful, in part, because of its fresh ingredients but mostly because he used high-quality tequila. And that is what people should focus on when it comes to making their own margaritas or ordering them at a bar, he said.
“First, taste a couple of blanco tequilas and find one that is not too hot but one that is mellow. Then make sure you have the right balance of tequila, lime juice and agave nectar for sweetness,” Ahern said. “Agave nectar comes from the plant, so you actually are not taking away from the flavor of the tequila but adding to it.”
To find the perfect tequila for your cocktail, think of tequila as wine, said Jesse Morreale, owner of Denver’s El Diablo Cocina y Tequileria, which boasts more than 380 types of tequila. No two tequilas are alike, and the differences between the blanco, reposado and añejo types dictate which tequilas are good for mixing with fresh juices and which ones are better for sipping.
“Tequila is the closest spirit to wine because of the way it’s grown and distilled,” he said. “It all comes down to the sugars, so depending on the soil, the amount of sunlight, the moisture and the temperature, the agave plant will be different. All that translates to you having your own palate for it.”
Sean Yontz, chef at El Diablo, said margaritas that use fresh juices are becoming popular. For Cinco de Mayo, he created a citrusy margarita-like cocktail with grapefruit juice, grapefruit soda and silver tequila. In Mexico this cocktail is known as a paloma (dove), and instead of grapefruit juice, people often use Squirt.
“Fresh-juice margaritas are popular because the real flavor of the tequila comes through,” said Yontz. “Just make it simple, get a good tequila – blanco, reposado or añejo – some fresh lime juice, and agave syrup if you like it a little sweeter, and that is it.”
Tequila brands such as Gran Centenario, Corazón and 30-30 silver are the preferred spirits for the many types of margaritas and tequila-based cocktails at El Diablo, but flavors run the gamut, and the only way to know the type of tequila you prefer is by sipping it, said Brent Hocking, chief executive of DeLeón Tequila.
“Over time, many great tequilas have come into the market, and the purer the product, the easier it is to drink on the rocks,” he said. “I think over the past 15 years, people have seen that tequila is not a gimmick brand but is a quality spirit and, when done right, it can be drunk on the rocks.”
So why are there so many bad margs out there, especially the prepackaged, bottled kind?
“We found out the big mass producers take out the tequila and replace it with grain alcohol and tequila flavors,” said Maureen Schaffer, the Fort Collins mother of five who created Coyote Gold bottled margaritas with her friend Randy Zwetzig. The pair worked together at NCR Microelectronics in Fort Collins and gained fame for their homemade margaritas. As they began to get more requests for large quantities for parties, the engineers decided to bottle the popular recipe.
“We thought, ‘We design microelectrical circuits, how hard could it be to put a margarita in a bottle?’ “ Schaffer said, with the wry humor that comes from looking back on the early days of a project.
The partners applied the same methodical attention to detail required for designing computer chips to navigating the labyrinth of liquor laws. They spent a year converting their kitchen recipe into a commercial blend with the help of a consultant, who at first followed the make-it-cheap formula.
“We said, ‘This tastes like every other bad margarita out there,’?” said Schaffer. “Our contention was that people would be willing to pay a little more for a high-quality product.”
They were right. Coyote Gold uses premium reposado, 100 percent blue agave tequila that has been aged for six months in charred-oak bourbon barrels. Four years after the first Coyote Gold margaritas rolled off the production line, the bottles are sold in 20 states and it will be the official margarita of Denver’s Cinco de Mayo festival this weekend at Civic Center park.
If Schaffer’s name sounds familiar, it might be because she is married to Bob Schaffer, the former Republican congressman and principal of Liberty Common High School, a charter school in Fort Collins. How does she manage her work in the liquor industry with her husband’s conservative political career?
“I just do it, and people are happy about,” she said. “I donate to political causes on both sides. Bob always says, ‘Republicans are a lot of fun, and they love a good margarita too.’ “
JJ’s Winning Margarita
Denver bartender JJ Ahern won a cocktail contest in Mexico with this recipe. Makes 1 drink.
1½ ounces Olmeca Altos Silver tequila
½ ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce coconut water
1 ounce cinnamon-infused tangerine juice
¾ ounce ginger-peach juice
¾ ounce agave nectar
Sliced white peaches
Peeled and sliced fresh ginger
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add the ingredients and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled glass rimmed with cinnamon sugar. Garnish with peach and ginger slices.
From El Camino Community Tavern, makes 1 drink.
1½ ounces Herradura Blanco tequila
¾ ounce lime juice
¾ ounce agave syrup (also called nectar)
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add tequila, lime juice and agave syrup. Shake and strain into an ice-filled glass rimmed with salt.
By JJ Ahern, bartender at El Camino Community Tavern, makes 1 drink.
1½ ounces Tres Agaves Reposado tequila
1 ounce Cedilla Açai Liqueur
Juice of ½ lemon
¾ ounce agave syrup
Salt, for glass
Lemon and lime zest
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add tequila, liqueur, lemon juice and agave syrup. Strain into an ice-filled glass rimmed with salt. Garnish with lemon and lime zest. Add a pinch of allspice before serving.
The Devil’s Margarita
Developed in conjunction with Coyote Gold and the Mishawaka Inn in Bellvue, Colo. Makes 1 shot.
1 ounce Coyote Gold margarita
10 drops Tabasco or other hot sauce
You know what to do.
Fresh Strawberry Basil Margarita
Luis Galvez, head chef at Denver’s Blue Bonnet Cafe, and bar manager and master mixologist John Duvernet collaborated on this recipe. Makes 1 drink.
2 ounces fresh strawberries
1 ounce Cointreau
Splash of agave syrup
2 ounces Sauza Hornitos Silver Tequila
3 torn basil leaves
1 ounce fresh lime juice
Soak hulled strawberries in Cointreau and agave syrup. In a blender, combine strawberries with tequila, torn basil leaves, lime juice and ice. Blend until smooth. Pour in glass and garnish with fresh lime slice and sprig of basil.
Orange Habanero Margarita
Two 18-year veterans of the Blue Bonnet Café in Denver — head chef Luis Galvez and bar manager and master mixologist John Duvernet — collaborated on this recipe. Makes 1 drink.
¼ peeled fresh orange
Several slivers of fresh habanero chile
½ ounce agave syrup
2 ounces Sauza Tres Generaciones Reposado Tequila
1 ounce fresh lime juice
Another drop agave syrup
Splash Grand Marnier
Fresh orange and lime slices
In a cocktail shaker, combine orange, chile and agave syrup. Muddle until mixed well.
Add tequila, lime juice and another drop of agave syrup. Add a splash of Grand Marnier. Shake vigorously. Pour over ice or blend and serve frozen. Garnish with fresh orange and fresh lime slices.