A frozen drink is only as good as its ingredients and the equipment it’s made with. But normal levels of texture, dilution and sweetness all go out the window when it comes to blended drinks, and nailing the optimal ratio can be especially tricky at home.
The frozen Margarita machine, converted from a soft-serve dispenser by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez in 1971, provided the template for the equipment. Nearly 50 years later, Travis Tober, co-owner of Austin’s Nickel City (who also did a five-year stint as a corporate trainer for TGI Fridays), recommends going with a Vitamix or the “old-school, three-speed Hamilton Beach HBB908 commercial bar blender, the kind still used in Cuba’s best Daiquiri bars.”
Mike Capoferri, of Los Angeles’ Thunderbolt, and Kirk Estopinal, of Cure and Cane & Table in New Orleans, are also devoted to the Vitamix. Estopinal notes that Vitamix sells deeply discounted refurbished machines with a five-year warranty, but “a good Waring blender will also get you where you want to go.” (Mariano Martinez’s father, who codified the frozen Margarita in 1938, made his drinks in a standard Waring blender.)
Ice is another crucial variable. Many bartenders will say crushed is preferable over cubed because it breaks up easily and quickly, but it can also overdilute a drink. Oversized cubes are problematic because they take too long to break down, and can wreck a noncommercial blender. Estopinal likes to use pebble ice, which breaks down efficiently without risking overdilution. He recommends finding a Sonic Drive-In, which carries pebble ice made in a machine called a Scotsman. “When you’re not using a commercial blender, added water is not your friend, so it’s the ice size and amount that matter,” he says.
Tober, for his part, is less concerned with ice shape than he is flavor. “Because frozen cocktails are about 20 to 25 percent water when blended, you should never add anything to the build that doesn’t have flavor,” he says. Nickel City uses orange pekoe tea cubes in its frozen Margaritas, chai cubes in Piña Coladas and chocolate tea cubes in its frozen Irish coffee.
Besides ice, tequila can make or break a frozen margarita. Estopinal suggests using a spirit between 80 and 90 proof to keep the cocktail balanced. “My philosophy is to achieve a concentration of flavor, sweetness in balance with acidity and fruity aromatics from the citrus,” he says. Capoferri, meanwhile, recommends skewing sweet when making any frozen cocktail, to compensate for dilution. “You’ll always need more than you think,” he says, “so I generally use one part sweet to three-quarter parts acid.” (Martinez added simple syrup to his converted Margarita machine to help with freezing, too.)
At Nickel City, Tober uses a 3:1 blend of Persian and Key lime juices (both varieties are available at most Latin markets), and equal parts Cointreau and simple syrup to balance sweetness and acidity. For other frozen cocktails, Estopinal says pasteurized or store-bought juice is “okay, and sometimes way better” than fresh, depending upon the season and availability. “A lot of frozen drinks just taste like the sound of recording a band with the microphone next door under a cardboard box. A good frozen should have space and vibrancy.”
When building the drink, add the liquid components to the blender first, followed by the ice. Tober blends on the lowest speed for five seconds, then hits high speed for 10 seconds. “That seems to be the sweet spot,” he says. “Any longer and you’ll heat the ingredients, resulting in a watery drink.” He recommends pouring the mixture, with a “barely melted soft-serve” consistency, into a pre-chilled glass, preferably YETI’s insulated tumblers for backyard barbecues. At the bar, he prefers 15-ounce goblets. “You want something with thick walls to keep the drink cold.”
Garnished with a salted rim and lime wheel, the frozen Margarita is more than a happy hour staple or hot weather refresher: It’s an enduring symbol of carefree hedonism, no plane ticket (or mask) required.