Tequila master Nick Heil tells you how to raise your mix game from good to gold
I witnessed the birth of my first real margarita more than a decade ago, at a beachside snack shack with a palapa roof and sand floor in Todos Santos, Mexico. I wasn’t expecting anything special, given the barefoot character of the place. But the bartender, who was also the waiter and cook and probably the owner, plunked two glasses on the counter, swabbed the rim with a lime wedge, and dunked them in coarse sea salt. Then he poured three fingers of blanco tequila (clear and unaged), added a splash of triple sec, some ice cubes, and the juice of one lime that he hand-pressed into each glass. A quick swizzle with a long spoon and they arrived at our table. We paid maybe three bucks each.
It’s possible I’d spent too much time in the sun that day, but the drink was a revelation. Served alongside a basket of fresh tortilla chips and some house-made salsa, it was the perfect array of flavors—a balance of citrusy tang and mineral spirits, with a wisp of spice that played brilliantly with the fiery dip. I would never think about, make, or order a margarita the same way again.
It’s no surprise that margaritas now have their own day. According to Nielsen, the ratings organization, margaritas were the best-selling drink in America in 2018, surpassing stalwarts like martinis, old-fashioneds, and mimosas. There are now nearly infinite variations of the cocktail, especially when you expand the family of agave spirits to include mezcal, sotol, and others. The key, as with all things, is the quality of the ingredients and the care with which they’re combined.
A Few General Rules:
- You should taste the tequila. As aficionados will tell you, tequilas all have their own terroir and character, whether they’re blanco, reposado (aged up to 12 months), or añejo (aged between one and three years). Get to know and enjoy them.
- Choose only tequila that’s made from 100 percent agave. No mixtos or blends. (Cuervo Gold is for college parties only.)
- Use fresh citrus, from ripe fruit. No prefab mixers.
- A little salt on the rim can brighten and balance your drink. I like to experiment with blending in herbs and spices to hit different flavors. For example, try sea salt and your favorite fine-ground red chile pepper.
- Learn to make margaritas at home, so you can decide whether the one you’re about to order in a bar is really worth $15. Perhaps you should just order tequila, neat?
- Friends occasionally ask me if frozen (a.k.a. blended) margaritas are acceptable. The short answer is: no. The long answer is: noooooo! But rules are made to be broken, I suppose.
Here are five of the best margarita recipes I know. When I eventually shuffle off to the beachside snack shack in the sky, I hope these are the drinks they’re serving. Unless otherwise specified, combine ingredients in a shaker with ice and then strain. I prefer my margaritas on the rocks, though up is fine, too. I use a high-quality lowball glass and tend to avoid cactus-shaped novelty stemware with sombrero-style bowls on top.
This is my personal recipe, named after my home, the CrackShack, a onetime drug house in a historic neighborhood that I painstakingly renovated over the course of two years, a process that required blood, sweat, occasional tears, and many afternoon margs. My house recipe changes on a regular basis, but this is the current favorite: an updated classic that’s super smooth and slightly sweet.
- 2 ounces Suerte Añejo
- 1 ounces Bauchant
- Juice of ½ lime
- Fleur de sel salt on the rim
The Silver Coin
Silver Coin margaritas showcase high-quality silver tequila balanced with a little Cointreau (hence the name) and fresh citrus.
- 2 ounces Herradura Silver
- 1 ounces Cointreau
- Juice of ½ lime
- Lemon juice to taste (try a quarter of a Meyer lemon, which is a sweeter variety)
- Sea salt on the rim
This big, fun, unusual mezcal-specific drink has a lot going on, so balancing all the flavors is important. It’s sweet, tangy, and savory all at once, which makes it especially great during backyard barbecues.
- 1 teaspoon pureed chipotle in adobo sauce
- ½ lime, quartered lengthwise
- ¼ ounce ginger simple syrup (recipe below)
- ½ ounce fresh lemon juice
- ¼ ounce agave nectar
- 2 ounces Sombra mezcal
- 1 strip red bell pepper, for garnish
- 1 slice bacon or beef jerky, for garnish
In a shaker, muddle the chipotle and lime wedges with the ginger syrup, lemon juice, and agave. Add the mezcal and ice, shake, strain into a glass, and garnish.
To make the ginger syrup: Bring two cups of water and two cups of sugar to boil. Add 8 ounces peeled and sliced ginger. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat, steep for 30 minutes, and strain.
The Smoke and Fire
A local favorite at La Choza, a popular Santa Fe restaurant, the aptly named Smoke and Fire combines mezcal’s smoky quality with the bite of hot peppers. For this homemade version, you’ll need to experiment with the jalapeños—or a similar pepper of your choice—to dial in the heat to your liking.
- 1 ½ ounce Sauza Tres Generaciones Plata tequila
- 1 ounce Cointreau
- 1 ounce Don Amado Rústico mezcal
- 3 slices jalapeño, muddled in the glass (or in the shaker, for a little less heat)
- Sea salt on the rim
OK fine, this isn’t a margarita per se: sangrita is a tequila companion traditionally served as a chaser. But it’s good stuff that begs for experimentation. Here’s my go-to favorite.
- 2 cups fresh-squeezed orange juice
- ¼ cup pomegranate juice
- 2 teaspoons chili powder (ancho or similar)
- 6 dashes Cholula or your preferred hot sauce
- ½ teaspoon salt
Combine in a pitcher and serve in a shot glass alongside a two-ounce pour of your favorite tequila.