For many Texans, the margarita is the quintessential happy hour treat. But for aficionado and associate editor Courtney Bond, this classic cocktail is far removed from the simple concoction of years past. Gone are the high-quality tequila and fresh lime juice, replaced by a mixture that’s more reminiscent of something you’d find in a kid’s sippy cup. For “The Margarita Variations,” Bond calls upon three bars to help reinvigorate and reimagine our favorite drink. Here’s the story behind the story.
Why do you think the state of the margarita has changed very little over the past few decades?
Expediency. Folks are impatient, waving their money at the bar, and few bartenders are allowed the time to craft a really well-made margarita. And in their defense, most people can’t tell the difference anyway. They’ve gotten too used to what passes for a margarita these days, which is a far cry from the real thing.
What do you hope to accomplish from this call to action for a margarita revitalization?
Well, I’m certainly not the first to bemoan the sorry state of the margarita. But now that simple, old-fashioned cocktails are back in vogue and bartenders are making really good drinks for people willing to wait (and pay) for them, it would be great to bring the margarita into that fold, to remind everyone what the drink was meant to be, i.e., not limeade. A margarita’s components are strong alcohol and lime juice. It’s an acquired taste, just like a martini.
Were you always a margarita purist? Or was it something you recognized after one too many “Slurpee”-like cocktails?
I think I became a purist many years ago when I made my first margarita at home. I remember tasting it and thinking, “Yuck! What did I do wrong? This tastes like tequila! And lime!” Imagine that.
What would you include in your perfect margarita?
Silver tequila (any good one, I’m not particular), Cointreau, and lime juice. But I’m not opposed to adding a few things here and there. I love spicy margaritas. And certain fruit juices really complement a margarita’s flavors, like blood orange and pomegranate. Oh, and salt. Must have salt.
How did you choose the bartenders and bars featured in the story?
I scouted around for places where it was obvious that a lot of thought and effort was going into the bar program. I was looking for bartenders who clearly took pride in serving good drinks as well as educating and challenging their customers. If the bartender is back behind the bar chipping ice and squeezing citrus and making his or her own tinctures, you’re in luck.
There are some pretty unconventional ingredients in the variations. What were some of the most surprising ones?
I loved the mix of cool cucumber and hot jalapeño in the Fuego Fresco. The most surprising ingredient for me was the scotch in Elizabeth Lopez’s Libertad. I am not a big fan of smoky flavors and had a hard time imagining what that would taste like with the tequila and the juices and the cilantro (another unusual ingredient). I didn’t expect to like it, honestly, so I was surprised to find myself unable to put it down.
You claim the margarita as Texas’s unofficial state drink. Why do you think Texans love margaritas so much?
Our proximity to Mexico, of course, where tequila comes from. Our love of Tex-Mex—is there any other drink besides beer that goes so well with that food? They were made for each other. And it’s a great drink for hot weather, which we certainly have plenty of.
As the editor of TEXAS MONTHLY’s Dining Guide, what is it about food that interests you?
The process of cooking itself, taking raw materials and turning them into something wonderful. The excitement and the energy of restaurants. The community you create when you share a meal with others.
This is your first feature story for the magazine. Can you describe the process from idea to print?
We were kicking around ideas for our summer issues and decided it was time for a margarita story. Obviously it’s not anything earth-shattering; we were just looking for something readers would enjoy. Then it was a matter of getting bartenders involved, getting the art department in on it, brainstorming about how the story should look, testing the recipes, and, of course, writing it. Almost in that order . . .
What other popular cocktail would you like to bring back to its classic form?
The daiquiri. It’s very similar in construction to the margarita—just rum, lime, and sugar—but too often you get this terribly sweet, neon-colored concoction. Hemingway would not approve.