The cocktails most frequently ordered in American bars have changed a lot recent years. Due to the exertions of young bartenders eager to get their clientele to drink better spirits and beverages, the fortunes of old standards like the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan and Negroni, among others, have risen. And, owing to the marketing muscle of vodka companies, the Moscow Mule, once a forgotten oddity, is now ubiquitous.

One drink that has held steady through this game of musical barstools, however, is the Margarita. The drink has performed strongly for decades as an American favorite and, though the recent resurgence of tequila among consumers has certainly helped boost the spirit’s reputation, the Margarita didn’t really need the assist. 

Still, the chances of getting a quality—or, at least, better quality—Margarita have increased markedly, as bars have become more conscientious about using good, 100-percent tequila (instead of a mixto), fresh lime juice (instead of sour mix) and decent orange liqueur (instead of bottom-shelf triple sec).

To gauge just how much things have improved, we canvassed 15 of the nation’s best bartenders for their Margarita recipes and blind-tasted them all on a recent afternoon. Joining myself and PUNCH assistant editor Chloe Frechette as guest judges were bartenders John deBary, recently of Momofuku; Joaquín Simó, an owner of New York’s Pouring Ribbons; and Claire Sprouse, recently of Sunday In Brooklyn.

“When it comes to those three-ingredient cocktails that have stood the test of time,” said Simó, sizing up the current status of the Margarita, “concentrating on the quality of those ingredients has got to make a better cocktail.” Sprouse agreed: “People care more about the products they put in it. It certainly helps to elevate the drink.”

Each ingredient, of course, matters. The issue of juice was a simple one for the judges. They wanted to see lime juice and they wanted it to be fresh—that was that. For tequila, a blanco was desired, specifically one that had enough personality and punch that it stood front and center in the drink. If an overproof tequila was used, the panel thought it wise to dial back the measurement of the spirit; and, if an aged tequila came into play, a richer orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier, might be warranted. Despite the rise of the Curaçao-free Tommy’s Margarita, the panelists felt that orange liqueur, whether Combier, GrandMa or Pierre Ferrand, played a critical role in the drink.

“To me, the triple sec makes the drink,” said deBary. Added Simó, “There is something about that interplay of lime and orange that goes missing in a Tommy’s. But it works in that restaurant, where they are showcasing that spirit.” Cointreau was the overwhelming preference of the judges, and cheap brands were abhorred as hangover-inducing sugar bombs. “Bad liqueurs are bad,” said deBary.

As far as the much-debated fourth element in the drink goes—the salt rim—the judges took a middle road. “I’m a hard ‘maybe,’” quipped deBary. (Translation: a half-rim of salt, giving the option of a salty or salt-free sip.) Even with a partial rim, though, Simó considers too much salt a mistake. “Wipe off the excess,” he instructed. “A coated band of salt is bad.”

The majority of the drinks the panel sampled were served on the rocks—a sign of the times. For many years, Margaritas were typically served up, in the large, long-stemmed glasses that bore the drink’s name. It was the cocktail revivalists who transferred the Margarita to a rocks glass over ice. But the judges were ambivalent on which presentation was best, believing both had their place.

“I love an up Margarita,” said Sprouse. “It’s classic. To me, that’s a beautiful cocktail.” Simó, however, thought that it was a question of indoor or outdoor drinking, with rocks being the preference for the latter category. Meanwhile, deBary preferred an up drink when he planned to dispatch it quickly, and rocks when he was in a sipping mood.

Despite the openness to an up drink, the top three recipes were all served on the rocks. Tied for second and third place honors were classic formulas from bartenders Jeremy Oertel and Phil Ward, respectively. Oertel called for two ounces of El Tesoro blanco tequila, one ounce Cointreau and three-quarters of an ounce lime juice, shaken and strained over fresh Kold Draft ice with a salt rim. The recipe from Ward, a recognized agave authority, was identical, except it called for Siete Leguas blanco tequila. (This similarity was not surprising, since Oertel worked at the late, great agave bar Mayahuel, which Ward owned.)

The winner, however, was a surprise, though from a likely source: Bobby Heugel, the Houston bar baron who owns the respected agave bar The Pastry War. Like the Tommy’s Margarita, Heugel’s drink dispensed with orange liqueur altogether, and added a half-ounce of agave syrup. The scant half-ounce of juice, meanwhile, was split between lime and key lime, and the tequila two ounces of Pueblo Viejo. The mix was shaken and dumped into the rocks glass as-is, and served with a salt rim. (Julio Bermejo, the inventor of the Tommy’s Margarita, also had a drink in the running. Though well-liked, it did not make the final cut.)

Heugel’s drink was liked from the first, and approved of again upon a second tasting. Simó tasted a “lot of tropical fruit in there,” and Sprouse thought she detected a “key lime-y thing” even before the recipes were revealed. This all, despite the purist panelists’ earlier stated views on the vital role of orange liqueur in the Margarita. Doctrine will get you just so far with cocktails. Deliciousness, however, goes a long way.

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