How to Make a Good Margarita
The Margarita is without a doubt my favorite cocktail and I don’t think I’m alone in this.
However, like so many other great classic recipes, it went through the dark ages of mixology in the 80’s and 90’s and barely made it out alive. We’ve all seen and even enjoyed those giant, sugar-laden, blended margaritas served at silly chain restaurants. Maybe sometimes that hits the spot, but more often than not cheap tequila + loads of sugar just makes for the absolute worst hangovers the next day. So why do that to yourself?
Making a quality margarita is not hard, and only requires a few simple ingredients. When done right, it’s an incredible drink that is super refreshing and not loaded with sugar.
First things first though: let’s make sure we’re clear on what not to do…
How NOT to make a Margarita
Do NOT use Sour Mix. Just don’t do it. It’s lazy & it’s not as good. If you don’t have time to cut & juice a real lime, then you don’t have time to make cocktails. Go back to your spreadsheets & emails!
Do NOT use a cheap tequila. Note that cheap is not the same as inexpensive. There are plenty of quality tequilas available that won’t break the bank (more on specific tequila recommendations later). However, a lot of bottom-shelf tequila is often mixed with sugar (referred to as “mixto”) & this is the stuff that is known for giving you those nasty hangovers. Make sure it says “100% agave” on the label somewhere & it should be decent stuff.
Do NOT load it up with sugar. After talking about Sour Mix & cheap tequila, maybe this point is redundant. But there is no need for your margarita to be loaded up with sweetness.
A blender is optional. I’m certainly not above making a blended marg, so I won’t be the one to tell you to ditch the blender. However, I encourage you to try making some margs shaken & on the rocks.
Now that you know how to not ruin your margarita, let’s get into how to make a good one.
Below is a list of what you’ll need, with a few optional ingredients. In reality you can make a great margarita with just tequila, fresh lime juice & a little agave nectar or simple syrup to balance it out. However, I recommend also using a quality orange liqueur (aka triple sec). My personal favorite is Cointreau & I think it works exceptionally well in a margarita.
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Things You’ll Need
100% agave tequila
Agave nectar or simple syrup
Salt (optional– kinda but not really)
Quality orange liqueur, i.e. Cointreau
To Salt or Not to Salt
Not everyone enjoys a salted rim (crazy, I know). If you’re making drinks for a lot of people, it’s best practice to salt half the rim of the glass so that guests can avoid the salt if they want to. Personally, I want all the salt I can get with my margs so I just do the full rim for myself.
Simply take half a lime & rub it around the edge of your glass, then dip the glass into coarse sea salt. Another method is to place your glassware in the freezer for a few minutes, then remove, allowing that frosted chill ❄️ to form on the outside of the glass. This will also allow the salt to stick to the glass.
An extra tip, try adding a small pinch of salt into the drink itself before you shake it. It won’t necessarily make your margarita extra salty, but just like when you add salt to food, it helps to bring out & emphasize various flavors.
Your Margarita is Only as Good as Your Ingredients
As mentioned previously, stay away from Sour Mix or cheap mixers in general. There are some decent margarita mixes on the market, but there really is no replacement for freshly juiced lime. Just grab a hand-juicer & you’re good to go.
Another element that can easily make or break your margarita, is the orange liqueur. Go to any liquor store & you’ll see tons of options. There are some for only $6 a bottle, but these are generally little more than orange flavored syrup. Quality bottles like Cointreau or Grand Marnier will run you closer to $40 per 750ml, but they’re truly worth it– plus you’re only using ¾ oz of it per drink, so they’ll last a while. If you want a little more budget-friendly option, another one of my favorites is Patrón Citrónge Liqueur.
Lastly, you definitely want to use a quality tequila; & that doesn’t mean it has to be the choicest stuff either. There are some really delicious tequilas out there in the $20-$30 per bottle range. I prefer using a blanco tequila in margaritas, as that will be the most robust. A reposado tequila has been “rested” in barrels, so the flavors are more subdued. Whatever you choose, make sure it says “100% agave” somewhere on the bottle.
A few recommended tequila brands:
Pueblo Viejo Blanco – around $19 per bottle (my personal go-to for margarita night)
Libélula Joven – around $20
Altos Plata – around $25
Espolon Blanco – around $27
Here are a few pricier options if you feel like splurging a bit:
I’m all for keeping it simple when making margs, but there are some fun & easy tweaks you can make to give your margaritas an extra something special.
I like adding a few drops of Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub to each marg I make. As long as you don’t go crazy with it, it doesn’t actually make the drink spicy. Instead, it elevates existing flavors & adds some extra “zing” to the fresh citrus.
If you don’t mind some heat, try gently muddling a few jalapeño slices (or try different types of peppers). Alternatively, muddling fresh cilantro adds another fresh & savory element to the party. I’ve even seen people add avocado to their margaritas but I’ve yet to try that myself.
One of my favorite margarita upgrades is Ancho Reyes Chili Liqueur (which comes in both a red & green version). It’s not even that spicy, it’s just rich & full chili flavor that goes so well with tequila. If I’m in the mood, I’ll float ¾ oz of Ancho Reyes over the top of a finished margarita.
If you’re a mezcal fan, make your marg with mezcal or split the base; using 1 oz tequila & 1 oz of mezcal. I also keep some mezcal in a little spray bottle so I can add a smoky mist over the top before enjoying the cocktail.
The secret to any quality cocktail is about balance of flavors. If you take a sip of a cocktail & go “oh that’s sweet” then the flavors are out of balance. Same goes for if a drink tastes really sour. In a margarita, it’s about balancing the spirit, sour & sweet together to make something cohesive & delicious.
Below are your basic specs for a quality margarita. You might want to experiment with the ratios of sour (lime juice) & sweet (agave nectar) to best suit your personal preferences. I like my margs a little dryer, so I usually do just a teaspoon of agave nectar. Sometimes I’ll dial back the booze to make a lighter serve, but I have to adjust the other ratios to achieve balance.
Feel free to change things up & see what works best for you. If you have this recipe as your starting point, you can’t go too wrong.
Margarita (Death & Co spec)
2 oz Blanco Tequila
¾ oz Cointreau
1 oz fresh lime juice
¼ oz agave nectar
Rim half a rocks glass with salt. Shake all ingredients with ice, then strain into your rimmed glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a lime wedge.