Is Good Tequila Required for a Good Margarita?

Years ago, a wise bartender in a cantina known for its destination margaritas and so-so cuisine revealed his secret: Cointreau. "I can beat El Tesoro and triple sec any day, with common tequila and Cointreau."

I didn't know how much wisdom he had, so I asked him to make what he had described, and it was true. In the years since, I've enjoyed margaritas with Cointreau and the rough-hewn Hornitos Reposado the barman used, oblivious to the obvious: What if I used Cointreau and higher-quality tequila?

Recently I bought a bottle of Pura Vida, to see if Stewart Skloss was exaggerating when he spoke to Eating Our Words. He wasn't; it is the best blanco tequila I've tasted. For contrast, I visited Thomas at Tony K's Liquors, a small store on Bissonnet with a masterful selection, for the cheap stuff. They wholesale to bars, so if your choice isn't on the shelf, it'll be in the back warehouse, at a competitive price.

"May I please have cheap 100 percent agave blanco tequila?" I asked. Thomas reached to the bottom shelf--no, the back of the bottom shelf--and pulled out a liter of Agavales. "Most people won't chance it at $9", he said.

Agavales tastes like...tequila. That' s it. Just tequila. No delicately spiced tropical fruit, no aroma of figs with a layer of pastry-crème, not even a harsh bite nor whiff of gasoline. In other words, it was an ideal variable for the Cointreau hypothesis. Pura Vida is vibrant, with the sweet taste of roasted agave and a peppercorn fade.

The skills needed to calibrate drinks come from the 4th Grade Science Fair, so I made sure the controls were identical. All the key lime juice squeezed together and glasses the same temperature. 1½ oz. tequila; 1 oz. Cointreau; ¾ oz. key lime juice; and three similar cubes of ice. Shake shake shake, and taste.

The Agavales margarita was good, actually. I'd serve it to guests if I didn't know better, and it proved once again what the barman said.

Unfortunately, after tasting the Pura Vida margarita, I did know better. The complexity of the tequila came through and multiplied the flavor notes of the Cointreau and key lime juice, rather than simply adding to them. The single tequila dimension of the Agavales no longer was enough. I'll save it for frozen margaritas, adequate for a sultry Houston day, but not a drink where nuances matter so much.

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John Kiely
Contact: John Kiely