ON BEVERAGE: Margarita’s laid-back reputation creates opportunities for cocktail experimentation

Ihave a confession: I forget cocktail recipes.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m relatively new to the cocktail circuit–compared to, say, the nearly two decades I’ve been on the beer beat–or because I am simply not programmed to easily recall such things, since I seem to have much the same problem with food recipes. But when friends come over and the cocktail shakers are broken out, I quickly reach for any of a dozen or more cocktail books, referring to one or another for even the simplest of recipes.

It’s a bit embarrassing, yes, but not so much as serving my guests a Mojiito sans refreshing bubbles, as I almost did recently, or forgetting the drops of bitters on a Pisco Sour.

So recently, inspired by both the imminent approach of the Cinco de Mayo and Jack Nicholson’s rhapsodic imagining of a sandy beach and a Peach Margarita in the movie “Something’s Gotta Give,” I decided to explore the many facets of the Margarita. Out came the books one after another, except that this time, rather than heading straight to the recipes, I explored their indexes for background on America’s most popular cocktail.

Margarita de Jamaica

Adapted from recipe served at Nacional 27 [2] and published in “Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails” by Robert Plotkin, 2007

Hibiscus sugar, for rim2oz. silver tequila 3/4 oz. orange liqueur 1oz. fresh lime sour mix 11/2 oz. hibiscus infusion

Rim Margarita glass with hibiscus sugar. Add all remaining ingredients an iced cocktail shaker, shake well and strain into rimmed glass.

To make hibiscus sugar, finely chop dried hibiscus flowers with superfine sugar.

To make hibiscus infusion, combine in a large pot one packed cup dried hibiscus flowers with two and a half cups sugar and one gallon water. Heat and simmer until reduced by 1/3.

The first point of interest I noted was David Wondrich’s characterization of the drink as a variation of the sidecar, with tequila in place of brandy and lime juice replacing the lemon. As a big fan of the older drink, this parallel intrigued me. Still, I couldn’t help but note that the Sidecar recipe remains more or less sacrosanct—a proper Sidecar will vary only marginally in terms of the ratio of brandy to orange liqueur to lemon juice—while the Margarita is known for its staggering number of variations.

Coconut Margarita

Adapted from recipe served at Blue Mesa Grill [3] and published in “Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails” by Robert Plotkin, 2007

Shaved coconut, for rim2oz. silver tequila 1/2 oz. orange liqueur 2oz. fresh sweet-and-sour mix 2oz. cream of coconut Cherry for garnish

Rim Margarita glass with coconut. Add all remaining ingredients except the cherry to an iced blender canister. Blend thoroughly until thick and smooth. Carefully pour into glass and garnish with the cherry.

In his book, “Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails,” Robert Plotkin perhaps puts it best: “Ask a hundred bartenders and you may well get 100 slightly different answers.” Plotkin then follows his lengthy dissertation on the drink with no fewer than forty recipes, from the coconut-rimmed Coconut Margarita of the Blue Mesa Grill in Addison, Texas, to the hibiscus-accented Margarita de Jamaica of Chicago’s Nacional 27.

My own theory as to why the Margarita is likely the most malleable of all cocktails revolves around its almost tangible association with warm weather, sun-strewn beaches and easy times. In such a relaxed setting, who has the time or inclination to worry about proper recipes or prescribed ratios? Bring on the fruit. Start up the blenders. And to hell with tradition.

Okay, maybe not “to hell with,” but certainly we can safely indulge our playful side when crafting such a “good times” drink. Absolutes should include quality tequila–usually silver, but occasionally reposado, depending on the flavor intensity of the other ingredients–and orange liqueur, plus lime juice for a refreshing bite. Technical points to consider include keeping the salt rim where it belongs, on the lip of the glass, rather than allowing stray grains to fall into the drink and alter its composition. Another guiding principle is maintaining a balance of ingredients, so that none overpowers its mates, leaving, for example, a Pineapple Margarita that tastes like vaguely orangey pineapple juice.

Beyond that, the Margarita is a blank canvas of a cocktail, ready and waiting to be well served by a fertile imagination. Even one, like my own, that won’t likely recall exactly what it concocted the last time.