Tea is the secret ingredient in a number of drinks at Travis Tober’s Nickel City bars: Mint tea fills out a slushy Southside, while green tea adds surprising nuance to frozen Hurricanes and Chi Chis. And for Tober’s signature frozen Margarita, well-diluted orange pekoe brings an additional layer of complexity and tannic backbone.
“You don’t ever want to add anything [to a frozen cocktail] that doesn’t add any flavor,” says Tober. That’s why his bars call on frozen tea in place of ice cubes.
While the Nickel City bars—one each in Austin and Fort Worth, plus a third in Houston opening this fall—feature large machines that swirl up scores of slushy drinks within minutes, the dilution technique also works for single servings, using ice cubes made from one tea bag steeped in 32 ounces of water, then cooled.
The recipe has been in place since Nickel City first opened about seven years ago, and it has barely changed since then. The tea technique came about because Tober was “playing with flavors.” He was inspired by the “Regal Shake,” which involves shaking a drink with a piece of citrus peel to add nuanced aroma and essential oils from the peel, while the pith gives a slight drying effect. Tea, he reasoned, would offer a similar outcome.
While he’d experimented with a wide range of teas over the years, he selected orange pekoe, a type of black tea, for the Margarita because of its versatility. Though there’s no actual orange in the tea, it harmonizes well with citrusy Cointreau. Further, the tea is diluted to the point where it adds just a hint of flavor, accenting but not overpowering the main ingredients.
It took only a few tries to nail the recipe. The proportions are similar to those of many classic Margs. Winnowed down to a single serve, an ounce and half of blanco tequila leads the drink; these days he’s using Tromba, an easy-to-find brand with a grassy note that he feels goes well with frozen cocktails. “It had enough character in it, but it wasn’t so over-the-top it threw off other flavors,” says Tober.
From there, Cointreau was an easy selection, for its higher proof, familiar flavor and wide availability. “It just made sense to stick with the granddaddy of orange liqueurs,” he says.
Then, Cointreau is paired with rich simple syrup, made of two parts sugar to one part water, continuing the theme of keeping dilution to a minimum. “The more unflavored water I can take out, the better,” Tober says.
He also tinkered with the lime juice component, blending three parts Persian lime juice to one part Key lime, a technique he first honed while making three-rum Daiquiris at Austin’s now-closed VOX Table. The blend offers better balance, is less acidic and “makes a more crushable cocktail.”
The most challenging part was getting the right consistency. “We wanted it almost like a soft serve, to hold up to Texas summers and not melt too quick,” he says. After tinkering with the dilution, he found the sweet spot to be between 20 and 26 percent dilution, with his current version of the cocktail ending up around 22 percent. While he uses a frozen-drink machine at his bar, for home use he suggests freezing diluted tea into cubes, and blending the drink using a Vitamix or three-speed Hamilton Beach blender.
The finishing touch is the drink’s presentation, which is one of the only parts that has changed over the years. While the Margarita has been served variously in goblets or “cheesy cactus glassware,” these days Nickel City serves it in 12-ounce plastic cups, as to-go drinks have flourished since the pandemic. Meanwhile, the garnish has morphed from a fresh lime wheel to a dehydrated one, with the option to add salt or a Tajín chile seasoning rim to taste.
But, frankly, the Margarita doesn’t need much workshopping, Tober concludes.
“We try not to overthink it,” he says. “We were trying to recreate a really well-made frozen. Now, I’m the frozen guy, I get questions about it all the time.”