Unveiling the Mysteries of the Margarita
When made “right,” the margarita is oh so good, but too often it comes out way too sweet, or acidic with an oversalted rim that leaves you with a burning in your chest—and a headache in the morning. In my quest to find the answers to the mysteries of the margarita, I hydrated well and went to Agave in Naples, whose menu features 10 different margaritas and some 80 tequilas.
The popular Mexican restaurant serves the award-winning Coconut Margarita, about which I once heard someone gush, “The more of those I drink, the sexier I get.” I understood the sentiment as soon as I stuck my straw in the frozen mound of sweet coconut tequila, pineapple, Coco Lopez and toasted coconut. It’s a tequila dream.
A cocktail well suited for adaptations, the traditional margarita is quite simple, according to Agave operations manager Angela Morales: “It’s just tequila, a little orange liqueur and lime; it’s not sweet.”
Quality ingredients are key, and picking the right tequila is a big deal. Sarah Kuhn, Agave’s beverage manager, says, “My personal preference for mixing is a silver tequila, but I sell more gold.”
Silver is smoother, providing a base that allows the other flavors in the cocktail to shine. Gold tequila is often blended, with color and flavor additives; it’s typically mixed with orange juice.
If you want an upgrade, order reposado, meaning “rested.” Reposado tequila is aged in a barrel for at least two months; the wood mellows harsh alcohol notes and adds flavor.
Anejo tequila spends a minimum of a year in oak, and extra anejo, three years. While sometimes used with mixers, aficionados often frown upon that practice, sipping anejo like a fine bourbon or cognac.
Milagro Barrel Select Reserve Anejo comes in a most striking bottle with blown glass inside. It’s also striking on the palate with spice, vanilla and butterscotch—tequila to savor.
Produced in small batches, using centuries-old techniques, is Fortaleza Anejo. You can taste and feel the warmth of the barrel this spicy and smooth tequila was aged in.
Each year Agave works with tequila producers on a barrel that is exclusive to the restaurant. It’s used in the signature Exclusive Margarita.
A word of caution about margaritas: If the restaurant you go to does not have a full liquor bar, your drink is being made with a wine-based substitute, not tequila.
Tequila can be made only in a specific region in Mexico from
the blue agave plant. When someone pointed out the plant has probiotics, we excitedly toasted tequila’s health benefits. Bonus.
A bottle may say it contains 100 percent agave, but legally the spirit has to contain only 51 percent.
With tequila basics out of the way, Kuhn mixed one of her favorites, Peach Fuego Margarita, saying, “I think it’s so much fun; really balanced.” Made with spicy Tanteo Tequila, Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur, peach schnapps, peach nectar and fresh citrus, the rim is coated in a house-made smoked peach and sriracha-salt rim. Sweet, salty, savory and spicy, this one has it all.
About the salty rim, Morales says, “Salt brightens up the elements in the glass.” General manager Holly Stek-Sleep cautions, “It can also be used to fight away the flavors of cheap tequila or too much sugar. We don’t have that problem.”
Beware that margaritas can also be laden with calorie-loaded mixers. Agave’s silver margarita (Corralejo Blanco Tequila, triple sec, fresh lime) is a low-cal fave; so is the Skinny.
Morales says, “We worked really hard on [the Skinny]. We used the silver mixture, muddled fresh citrus and then added some club soda to cut 60 calories.” It’s refreshing, effervescent and nearly guilt free.
As with many famous cocktails, stories of origin vary. According to the folks at Cointreau, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the original margarita, crafted in 1948 by Dallas socialite Margarita Sames. (Recipe provided below.)
A general rule of proportions when making your own margarita is 3-2-1: juice-tequila-triple sec. You might find the sweetness of your limes inconsistent, so be sure to taste.
Tasting is part of the daily routine at Agave, where the Exclusive Margarita is made in large quantities. “We constantly taste it. It’s a labor of love to get the right mix,” says Stek-Sleep. Job application, please? Gina Birch is a regular contributor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.
From left: Family-owned for 140 years, Fortaleza makes small-batch tequila; Agave’s Prickly Pear Margarita with chicken taco; the Peach Fuego Margarita with Mexican Street Corn appetizer.
Milagro Barrel Select, known for its blown-glass bottle, is a high-end tequila worthy of sipping, not just mixing.