A traditional margarita recipe is special in the pantheon of classic cocktails. Like the venerable daiquiri, the drink is primal enough that it can be made from commonly found ingredients yet has enough complexity to offer endless possibilities for riffing and customization. The basic recipe—tequila with triple sec and fresh lime juice—is forgiving for beginners but has enough room for experimentation that seasoned pros can add their own touches of flair.
There are a lot of riffs and variations of the popular cocktail (frozen margarita pie, anyone?), but as long as you have a shaken drink with tequila, lime, and orange liqueur, you are safely in Margaritaville. As someone who likes a more spirit-forward margarita, my go-to recipe is:
1¾ oz. tequila
¾ oz. lime juice
¾ oz. orange liqueur
¼ oz. agave syrup (equal parts agave nectar and water)
Combine everything in a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain into a coupe or rocks glass with ice, salt rim optional. Garnish with a lime wheel.
At its fastest, it can take about 30 seconds to assemble from start to finish. But knowing how to adapt, whether to your environment or to the people you’re making drinks for, is one of the most essential tools available to you as a drinks-maker. There are a ton of levers to pull when deciding the ultimate fate of a drink so that you won’t be caught off guard if you’re with a group of people who love sweet drinks or insist on using a bottle of mezcal they just discovered.
Here are seven key ways you can dial in the recipe to make it your perfect margarita (or, you know, how to make a margarita to suit your friends):
There’s no such thing as the best tequila for a margarita—each bottle has its own merits. The taste of any given tequila is influenced by how much time it spent aging in oak barrels. Blanco tequila is bottled without spending any time in oak, Reposado tequila sees up to three months in oak barrels (usually ex-bourbon casks), and Añejo tequila is aged up to a year in barrel. All tequilas offer a base level of roasty vegetal notes, but blancos give a bright, sparkly sheen to cocktails, whereas reposados and añjeos add a layer of warmth and spice. The bottle you pick out can change the entire vibe of your drink.
A warning: You really do want to stick to tequilas that have “100% de Agave” on the label. This is how you know the tequila is made from only agave and is high quality. Other tequilas, known as “mixtos,” can be made from up to 49% non-agave spirits and usually are full of unappetizing additives. It is worth the splurge to get good quality tequila.
Additionally, feel free to replace a portion of the tequila with mezcal, the smoky agave spirit of which tequila is a specific subset. Start by subbing out ½ ounce tequila and feel it out from there. You can even get wild and sub in non-agave spirits like gin or bourbon.
Sweet or dry, strong or weak?
For a drier margarita, ditch the agave syrup; on the other end of the spectrum, make your drink sweeter by upping the agave syrup to ½ or even ¾ ounce. For something less potent, try equal parts tequila, lime, and triple sec (1½ ounces each) and cut the additional sweetener. It’s always worth it to play around with measurements and find where your personal preference is. Remember, just because someone else wrote it down in a recipe does not mean you have to like it.
Orange liqueur switches
For a fresh, vibrant margarita, use a triple sec like Cointreau, a French liqueur made with bitter and aromatic orange peels. For something a little richer, perhaps with more of an autumnal vibe, use Grand Marnier, a cognac-based liqueur. Blue Curaçao is also an extremely valid option.
You say you want to make a margarita without orange liqueur? Did you miss the part where I laid out the margarita's core elements? Just kidding: It’s your party. Bump up the agave syrup to ¾ ounce for balance or swap out the liqueur for ½ ounce simple syrup.
For a spicy margarita, you can toss one or two thin slices of jalapeño or habanero chile into the shaker. For something more herbal, you might want a handful of cilantro or mint. You may also choose to play around with the citrus: Go for part lime juice, part lemon or grapefruit (but know that using too much grapefruit juice will land you squarely in paloma territory).
Play around with the fruit component if you’re so inclined. A little peach nectar or salted watermelon juice can go a long way toward giving your margarita a new personality.
When considering garnishes, skip the lime wedge for a more aesthetically pleasing lime wheel. Play up the flavor of the liqueur with an orange twist. Or toss a few round slices of cucumber or kiwi into your margarita glass.
To salt, or not to salt?
Salt makes everything taste better. But if you don’t feel like going through the work of salting the rim of your glass (it’s a pain for a big crowd or when you’re using disposable cups), you can simply add a pinch of kosher salt to your cocktail shaker before shaking. One of salt’s wonderful qualities is that it can cancel out some bitterness from the orange liqueur and lime juice to enhance the sweet, fruity notes of the drink.
Up or on the rocks?
The weather is usually my guide: If it’s hot out, I go for ice cubes; otherwise, straight up is my preference. Ultimately, it’s a very personal choice and neither is wrong.
Bubbles make everything better. Sparkling wine, seltzer, and even beer are great augmentations, especially if you want to lean more toward refreshing than strong. Margarita recipes are relatively forgiving and will not be thrown off balance with the addition of an ounce or two of something sparkling, but if you want to add an additional ¼ ounce of agave syrup to compensate for the added dilution and return a bit of body to the drink, go ahead.
More tequila, please:
Give these majestic agave spirits the respect they deserve.
John deBary is a former/semiretired bartender, author of ‘Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails,’ the creator of a line of zero-proof botanical drinks, Proteau, and the cofounder and Board President of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit