Often the villain of tales of college drinking gone awry, tequila gets a bad reputation as a harsh spirit. But one taste of a well-balanced margarita made with quality ingredients, and you’ll know to blame your horror stories on youthful indiscretion and the questionable quality of tequilas made in industrial quality, rather than the spirit itself.
Tequila is a distillation of the piña or heart of the agave plant, a sweet succulent that looks like its cousin the aloe plant, and grows well in Mexico’s arid landscape. All of the rich minerality of the Mexican soil comes through in the end product, which is why a good tequila doesn’t need to be gulped down masked with salt and lime, but can instead be sipped and enjoyed.
So how do you know a good tequila from a not-so-good tequila? First, look at the label. Tequila purchased in the United States should always state that it is “100% Agave” so you know you aren’t getting neutral grain alcohol doctored up to taste like tequila. Second of all the label should include Hecho en Mexico, so you know that it has been made in the legally regulated area and style of Mexican tequila.
True 100% agave tequila doesn’t actually have a “gold” standard, but instead is offered as a clear, young spirit (silver or blanco) with green, grassy notes, or a spirit having seen somewhere between a little age (reposado) and a year or more (añjeo) in oak barrels. These more mature expressions have darker color, a richer mouth feel and flavors that include caramel, vanilla and roasted tropical fruit. The aged tequilas can be used in place of whisky in classic cocktails, but are also ideal for sipping as an after dinner drink.
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Once you have those elements in place, it is as much about your budget and personal tastes as anything else. Like all spirits, there are high-end luxury brands, and mid-range brands that do just as good a job at distilling delicious spirits. For a blanco, I’m partial to Partida—its vegetal, peppery flavor plays beautifully in a margarita.
About the Margarita—this cocktail is not actually Mexican in origin, but is a pre-war American drink popularized in 1950s Hollywood. It is a variant of the classic Daisy cocktail, which consists of liquor, citrus and a sweetening agent. Not for nothing is the word for daisy in Spanish margarita! Why the salt? The tradition evolved for people who are sensitive to bright, acidic flavors. The spirit itself, combined with the cocktail’s powerful citrus wallop, lends itself to some tempering with the softening mineral agent of salt.
A PERFECT MARGARITA COCKTAIL
2 oz 100% Agave blanco tequila
1 oz orange liqueur
¾ oz freshly squeezed lime juice
- Shake the ingredients with ice until chilled, diluted and frothy.
- Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and optionally rimmed with salt.
Muddle an inch long segment of cucumber in your shaker prior to adding your ingredients and ice; follow instructions above.
- Infuse your tequila with jalapeños by chopping the peppers and putting in a non-reactive container (a Mason jar is perfect) and pouring tequila over).
- Let the mixture steep for at least 8 hours, and up to a couple of days.
- Strain and discard the peppers (or use them as a very kicky garnish!).
- Follow instructions above using the infused tequila.