People avoid all sorts of boozes for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you're too broke for Scotch or too smug for vodka. Maybe beer bloats and disappoints you. Perhaps the smell of bourbon reminds you of Grandpa's special beatin' shoe. Or maybe you're like I used to be, and you associate tequila with fratsos and Hagars and loud woo-hoo! women who wear tiaras for the duration of their "birthday weekend" and call their boobs "the girls."
I was coming from a place of pure snobbery. I thought tequila was for assholes, which, yeah, I get it now, that made me the asshole. It's amateurish to judge a person by his drink, and I hope to never write one of those "What Your Drink Says About You" articles, but I used to have an unjust aversion to tequila. Then I met my wife, Drunkspin research director Emily, who is a pretty, preppy woman and not a member of Sigma Something or Van Halen, and she loves the stuff. So I dipped my toe in, and now I love it, too.
Tequila is both complex and approachable, a rare combination. It's not just some dumb white spirit that can be interchanged with any other dumb white spirit in neon novelty shots and boring and-sodas. At the same time it's free of the sort of bottle-to-bottle variability that makes other ambitious liquors so hard to mix. Tequila, unlike rum, has a mind of its own, but it can be reasoned with. It has just the right amount of character. An individual tequila tastes like itself but also like its tribe.
Trouble is, most tequila is consumed in margaritas, and most margaritas suck, because most margaritas taste like squeeze-box lemonade. Let's fix that.
Tequila is distilled from the blue agave plant. You want your tequila to be 100 percent agave; half-assed tequilas, called mixtos, are 51 percent agave and 49 percent whatever garbage juice the distiller has lying around. You've gotta look for that "100 percent agave" on the label. Other than that, feel free to explore the various nooks and crannies of tequila taxonomy. Clear tequila (blanco) is either un-aged or aged briefly in stainless steel. This is fine for a margarita. Reposado is a blanco that was thrown in a wooden barrel for a while; añejo was thrown in the same barrel for two whiles. They cost a little more, and they taste a little smoother and richer. No big deal either way, margaritically speaking.
As for what brand to use, there's only one rule: not Jose Cuervo. Half of all people who think they don't like tequila really mean they don't like Cuervo Gold, which is bullshit mixto tequila with caramel food coloring thrown in. There are a bunch of other Cuervo bottlings that suck less than the Gold, but none is worth its price. At my house we use Hornitos, which goes for about $25 a bottle, because we're rich as heck; commoners will be pleased to know that Agavales and Toro Azul are good options for about $15.
This is where I start being a pain in the ass. You need to use real, fresh lime juice. Not Rose's, not the shit in the plastic limeball, and certainly not any prepackaged sour mix. In fact, not even homemade sour mix, because as nice as that can be, we're making margaritas today, not tequila sours. Please don't fight me on this one. Limes are cheap, they keep forever, and you can squeeze them by hand if you don't care to invest in one of those awesome fruit-crusher vices. And I'm not saying you have to squeeze your limes by the drink, but you can't bulk up at the beginning of the month, either. Limewise, you really need to keep it as fresh as you can.
And this is where the liquor industry starts being a pain in the ass. Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and Pierre Ferrand Curaçao are great, but they're also pretty pricey. And all the bottom-shelf triple secs I've had are abominable. My darker hours have found me skipping this ingredient altogether and just adding a little orange juice, a dash of simple syrup or agave nectar, and a couple more drops of tequila. That's some dirty business, but it'll do if you find yourself painted into a dirty corner.
I like to use a 2:1:1 ratio of tequila to lime to orange stuff. Individual tastes will vary, as will individual circumstances (see above regarding desperate measures with oranges and sugars), but it helps to start out with a basic plan. Speaking of which, what does Drunkspin say about adding salt and strawberries and basil and grapefruit and slush and ketchup packets fermented in prison-toilet water? Delightful, one and all! I'm no purist. But we're just addressing a base-model margarita for now, which ought to go as follows.
1. Pour a healthy shot of tequila into an ice-filled cocktail mixer (or pint glass). I like to measure with one of the little stainless steel condiment cups that sometimes fall into your wife's purse at the nicer brewpubs. They're about 2 ounces.
2. Add half as much lime juice. And this is where I get all citrus-dick on you again. See, the volume of juice varies widely from lime to lime, and this step is important. You should measure. But if you think that's too fussy, or you can't tie all your money up in spare limes that might not be used right this instant, then budget two per drink.
3. Half a thing of whatever orange solution you're going with.
4. Secret bonus ingredient for those who've read this far: a quarter-shot of low-fi beer is a neat last-second way to get it all frothy without resorting to egg whites, which are cool but give me a break. I can't even get you to measure lime juice.
5. Cover the shaker with the other, littler shaker (or cover the pint glass with the palm of your hand) and give it nine good ones.
6. Dump it into a glass. (You could strain it over new ice, but I rarely bother, for I am not made out of time and ice.) It's going to look smaller than you expected, because you're not yet accustomed to nice things presented in a thoughtful manner without all sorts of fillers and fluffers and sugars. Drink it.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states if you don't count Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain. Image by Sam Woolley.
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