The Margarita Variations

Three highly drinkable twists on our favorite summer (or fall, or winter, or spring) cocktail.
The Classic
Photograph by Terry Brennan

What passes for a margarita looks like a Slurpee, tastes like a limeade, and packs as much kick as the punch at a Baptist wedding reception.” It was back in 1979, in “Requiem for a Margarita,” that this magazine made that sad declaration. And it is with heavy heart that I report that not much has changed. It’s a pitiful concoction that masquerades as a margarita these days: a soupçon of tequila drowned in a sickly sweet brew that’s never known a squeeze of fresh lime. It says a lot about the state of our favorite cocktail that, in two unrelated instances, waiters at different Applebee’s restaurants served a margarita (perhaps from a mislabeled container of—gasp!—premade mix?) instead of apple juice to an unsuspecting toddler. One of the mothers told a local newspaper that she knew something was amiss when her fifteen-month-old, after “saying hi and bye to the walls,” dozed for a bit, then “woke up and got real happy.” The good news is, the little guy is okay. The great news is, ­Applebee’s puts tequila in its margaritas.

Like the daiquiri and the martini, two esteemed cocktails that have been subjected to their own degradations, a proper margarita is simple and formidable, a bracing drink that carries a hell of a payload (it is just alcohol and juice, after all). But unlike gin or rum or vodka, tequila—lucky devil—lends itself to fewer adulterations, because it doesn’t always play well with others. Wrested from the heart of a majestic, cranky desert plant, it’s an ornery spirit, multilayered and temperamental. A careful hand can play with its fire, so to speak—add a little sweet here, a little sour there—and turn it into something truly sublime.

Which is why the much-­ballyhooed revitalization of the craft cocktail is such a welcome thing. Contrary to what you may have heard, this boozy renaissance is less about mustachioed “mixologists” in short pants fussing over esoteric ingredients and confounding concoctions than it is a return to the kind of well-made drink our grandparents would recognize. It’s a realization that a great cocktail requires fresh, high-quality ingredients, a little extra effort, and lots of love. And it’s about time the long-suffering margarita got in on that action.

But getting back to basics doesn’t mean we can’t play around with our unofficial state drink. With that in mind, we enlisted bartenders from three of the newest bars in Texas to come up with a variation on the margarita. And we start with a refresher course on what the original is supposed to look and taste like. Get yourself reacquainted with the real deal, then give one of these a try. On deck is a refreshing caipirinha-style elixir conjured up by San Antonio’s Bar at Bohanan’s; a frothy cucumber-­jalapeño libation from hot spot Cedars Social, in Dallas; and an unortho­dox brew from Austin’s Bar Congress that a fellow recipe tester likened to “drinking a volcano—in a good way.” ¡Salud!

CLASSIC MARGARITA

Innumerable are the creation stories associated with the margarita, and so too the opinions on

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...