Sunday, May 27, 2007
It's Memorial Day weekend, and that noise you hear is me and The Wife arguing once again about now to make a proper margarita. We are compatible in so many ways, from books to movies to television to our generally cranky dispositions, but on the subject of margaritas we are the Hatfields and McCoys. She likes them frozen and made from a mix, and I like them the right way.
A proper margarita is, like a martini or a manhattan, a classic cocktail that combines multiple liquors into a single drink and elevates the blend far beyond the sum of its parts. Mathematics has its Golden Ratio (a+b is to a as a is to b). The Golden Ratio in margarita mixology is simpler: 3 to 2 to 1. That is, three parts tequila to 2 parts triple sec to 1 part lime juice. No sugar required. Just combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker along with a scoop of ice, shake briskly a few times, and strain into a glass. Garnish with a bright wedge of lime.
At the other extreme is the frozen margarita made from a prepackaged mix, which has all the charm and elegance of Spring Break at Daytona Beach. Gone is the fresh lime juice, gone is the triple sec (so, no blending of liquors). In their place you get citric acid and high-fructose corn syrup and green food coloring. It's palatable only as a frozen margarita--mixed with ice and slushed up in a blender--and even then it is to the real thing what Miracle Whip is to fresh, homemade mayonnaise.
Robb Walsh has engagingly captured the history of the margarita in his articles for The Houston Press, including the origin of the frozen margarita, which he calls a drink made for "imbibers on training wheels." The concoction was popularized by restauranteurs such as Mariano Martinez of Mariano's Mexican Cuisine in Dallas, who discarded the blenders for soft-serve ice cream machines that allowed them to churn out drinks in bulk that weren't diluted by too much ice. But, a margarita is high in alcohol content and won't freeze in the machines. The solution? Increase the sugar content. Given enough sugar in the mix, you can freeze even generous quantities of tequila.
The result was a margarita boom in the 1970s and 1980s. Tex-Mex restaurants built out their bars and added chips & salsa and other cocktail-friendly snacks. Tequila sales in the U.S. rose 1500% between 1975 and 1995. Jimmy Buffett recorded "Margaritaville" in 1977, and the song leaves no doubt where his drinks land on the spectrum ("there's booze in the blender . . . that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.")
The quality of a margarita will be in direct proportion to the quality of the ingredients. If you are going to mix up a pitcher with a prepackaged mix, then Montezuma Tequila or some other low-rent brand will do: you won't be tasting the tequila any way amid all that overwhelming sugary pap. If you are going to make it the right way, shell out a little bit extra for a good tequila. If you really want to travel in style, don't use plain old triple-sec but Cointreau or another premium orange liqueur instead. At 30 bucks a bottle Cointreau is pretty pricey, but you don't use much in a margarita, and it adds a lot of character.
We'll be going head-to-head at our cookout this weekend, frozen pap vs. proper margaritas, and I'll be the vocal champion for the old, classic recipe. If past history is any indication, the blender will be busy all afternoon and the old shaker won't see much action. But, I'll be enjoying myself either way.
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