The quest for the perfect cocktail: the margarita
Don’t underestimate the Margarita. It might look easy-peasy to prepare (and drink), but there are caveats
My introduction to the margarita cocktail came way before my trip to Mexico. But it was that jaunt that truly opened my eyes. In addition, I learnt how to manage my intake and avoid a buckling hangover.
I had flown to Paris on Air France. The flight came with all the trimmings: a sip of champagne and snooty service. Then, as a staggering counterpoint, I flew from Paris to Mexico City on Aeroméxico.
Not long after takeoff there we were, standing in the aisles, swigging tequila in a riotous celebration of life, the volume turned up. Because Aeroméxico’s primary destination is Mexico, tequila is a complimentary drink after 11am on all flights.
The offspring of this disreputable spirit is of course the mighty and much celebrated — and imbibed — margarita. The story about the origin of the world’s most popular cocktail has many versions, but the one that appeals to me is that it was invented by Carlos "Danny" Herrera at his restaurant in Mexico in 1942.
Don Carlos was experimenting with cocktails and offered what was to become the margarita to one Margarita Henkel, the daughter of the then-German ambassador who was lolling about at his cantina. Since she was the first person to try the cocktail, it came to be known after her.
Another version goes that Ziegfeld dancer Marjorie King (Marjorie as in Margarita) claimed that tequila was the spirit that moved her — but only because, she insisted, she was allergic to all other hard liquor.
Here’s a thing: don’t underestimate this cocktail. It might look easy-peasy to prepare (and drink), but there are caveats. First, no dodgy-quality (crudo) tequila. But you really don’t need a top-level reposado (aged or "rested" tequila) for your margarita either. A good-quality 100% agave tequila is what you’re after.
Then, the preparation of this ankle-biting drink. Traditionally, a margarita consists of tequila, an orange liqueur like Cointreau, and fresh lime juice.
A little bit of sugar is usually added because that formula is too tart for many people’s palates. Never use an artificial mixer, like corn syrup (which, surprisingly, many bartenders do). Also, there is no substitute for freshly squeezed lime juice.
And before you think it, the margarita is much more than a tequila-filled lime concoction with a salted rim that you drink at happy hour.
In fact, the salted rim is the part that really gets me. Please, no crusts of salt. The edge of the glass should be lightly salted only. Run a piece of lime along the rim, then very lightly push it down into some salt. No more. The salt makes the sweet and sour flavours of the margarita pop and in turn makes the other flavours seem more intense.
During my trip to Mexico, I did a segue to San Miguel de Allende, a Unesco world heritage site and a beautiful pueblo in the foothills of the Bajio mountains in the centre of the country. It’s a haven for gastronomes, art lovers, the literary-inclined and of course lovers of the national drink of Mexico.
Surprisingly, I found myself in the bar of an exquisite hacienda, gazing at a wall of different types of tequila. It was then I learnt of the many iterations of the liquor — with nary a crudo in sight — and a sultry Mexican bartender for company. He talked me through the different aged tequilas, a double tot of which I had at a time. Accompanying this, in a similar-sized glass, excellent gazpacho. The idea was to have a sip of one then a sip of the other. A play of sorts on the Bloody Mary, I told myself after the third one.
Be that as it may, the lesson is, stay away from everything that involves the magic potion that is tequila if you intend to drink any other type of alcohol (whether by intent or by accident). The result is hideous and not worth the high that the initial Mexican drink gives you.
And it simply, absolutely, doesn’t like wine as a partner. Unless you have a blistering three-day hangover scheduled in your diary.
THE BEST MARGARITAS:
El Burro: 81 Main Road, Green Point, Cape town, 021-433-2364
Baha Taco: 38 Upper Grant Avenue, Norwood, Joburg, 076-694-7400