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Mastering the Margarita With Bobby Heugel

In "Masters of X," we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, Bobby Heugel takes on the Margarita.

When Julio Bermejo first served his Tommy’s Margarita back in the 1990s—made solely with 100-percent agave tequila, agave syrup and fresh lime juice—he arguably changed the history of the Margarita here in America. By eschewing the then-ubiquitous measure of triple sec, sour mix and mixto tequila, he offered a fresh notion of what a Margarita should be.

Since then, as is true with so many drinks, bartenders have continued to stretch those boundaries, offering twists that rely on everything from smoky notes of mezcal to watermelon, blood orangepomegranate and cucumber to génépy and Manischewitz. Then there are those, like Houston bartender Bobby Heugel, who prefer to keep it simple, offering small tweaks on an already iconic recipe in an attempt to further perfect it.

“What we wanted to do with this [drink] was to create a very solid, everyday Margarita,” says Heugel, who began workshopping the cocktail with Alba Huerta prior to opening their mezcaleria, The Pastry War, back in 2013. At the time, Heugel—who also owns Anvil and the recently opened Tongue-Cut Sparrow, among others—was in the process of building a tightly curated list of agave spirits.

“Our standards for tequila at The Pastry War are pretty high,” explains Heugel. “We only use products from families that we know personally and distilleries that we’ve visited.”

It stands to reason, then, that Heugel would opt to build on the spirit-forward Tommy’s recipe; Bermejo was, after all, the one who first pioneered a commitment to quality products when it came to agave spirits. But Heugel breaks from Bermejo’s original formula in a number of ways, from the style of tequila (he opts for a blanco tequila as opposed to a reposado) to the types of limes.

Having been inspired by his many trips to Mexico—where native Mexican limes are typically used in drinks, as opposed to the standard Persian limes seen north of the border—Heugel decided to play with different species of lime to fine-tune the drink’s tart flavor, a decision that is actually rooted in historical precedent.

“When we read ‘lime juice’ in old cocktail books, we just assume that they’re the same limes that we’re using currently, and that’s just not the case,” says Heugel, who adds that Key limes were actually the more widely available choice before the Persian lime, first developed in 1895, became popular in the 1950s and ‘60s.

For his Margarita, Heugel opts for a 50/50 blend of both Key and Persian lime juices. “The Key lime juice is just brighter and it really pops in the drink a lot more,” says Heugel. Persian limes, on the other hand, lend body and texture.

Another element that comes as something of a surprise in Heugel’s recipe is the choice to shake the Margarita and pour it, along with the ice from the shaker, directly into an empty glass rather that straining over fresh cubes. “I think there’s an assumption that shaking on ice and then pouring over ice is always the right option, but it’s not necessarily,” says Heugel, adding that the decision is dependent on how much dilution is desired in a drink up front. “When you shake a drink and then strain it over ice again, you’re adding an additional ice-wash to that cocktail.”

Of course, “shaking and dumping” does mean that the ice in the drink will be broken up, and will consequently melt faster than would larger, whole cubes. But that’s not something that Heugel’s particularly concerned about; with the rate at which most drinkers down a Margarita on a hot summer day, he explains, the cocktail’s longevity is rarely a factor. What’s more important is that it has a bracing, snappy dose of acidity that highlights—but does not mask—the flavors of the base spirit.

Or, as he puts it, that it, “just hits that sweet spot.”

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