To date, I have three out-standing margarita memories. To be clear, that’s not memories of outstanding margaritas, necessarily. Just three memories, standing out in my mind, of margaritas.
One is a blended cranberry margarita from the now long-defunct Chevy’s in Beaverton, Oregon. N and our friend J and I ended up there one evening on the way home from Christmas shopping in Portland. Power was out through half the city as a result of wind storms, and while we drove half-lost through the winter darkness, J fell asleep in the backseat clutching a thermos of tepid coffee. He’d been up all the night before with some friends and a new date, the woman he’s now been married to for almost a decade. None of this relates to that margarita, of course, but it was frosty and tart and crunchy with ice crystals, and I was at once smitten and sad that it was only a seasonal special.
Another is a straightforward affair of tequila, lime juice, and simple syrup made in my kitchen a few years ago by our friend I. He’s a bit
highbrow of a purist about his booze, so he supplied the good stuff, and no triple sec to be seen. He also brought the best citrus juicer I’ve ever seen, and though I don’t remember the drink itself beyond that it was tasty, I remember the sink being full of lime skins, bright green and juiced almost dry.
The third is just this January, a month so long ago it feels like years. N. and I were on our way home from a visit to my aunt and uncle in Florida, in the Denver airport, and I was coming down with a cold. (Visit? What is that? Airport? How did we even dare?) As we exited our plane in Denver, I saw two people walk past carrying gigantic taco salads, the kind that are served in a perfectly crisp, slightly greasy, deep-fried flour tortilla, and suddenly that was all I wanted in the whole world. With the help of a few airport staff we found the place they were from, and I knew I was getting a taco salad and a margarita for dinner: the idea of a citrus kick and, I joked, a little antiseptic from the tequila, would surely help “cure” me. It didn’t, of course, but it was a blissful half hour during which I was too busy stuffing my face to feel my symptoms.
All this to say, during the past month or so I’ve been on a margarita kick. I’ve been pretty low-brow about it, using bottled margarita mix from the store, and adding some extra lime juice, and sometimes orange juice, to make it more interesting with minimal effort. Instead of the traditional tequila, I bought myself a bottle of mezcal, which is made from agave and often has a distinctive smoky flavor.* My first mix-up, salt assiduously applied to the rim of my glass for “authenticity,” was good, but missing something: the smokiness of the mezcal I had seemed to call for heat in the drink. Ah, I thought, this needs some spice in with that salt. A few experiments later, I had it perfect. Five major tastes are represented: sweet from some raw sugar, sour from the lime juice that sticks the crystals to the glass, salty from, well, salt, and both bitter and spicy from a few shakes of smoked chili powder I happened to have in the spice cupboard.** It’s that, rather than the margarita itself, that I’m serving up for you today.
This is a non-recipe type of recipe, which is to say, I’m supplying some quantities here but you might want to adjust them depending on what you like best. The actual beverage I’m pouring into this glass is a mixture of mezcal, bottled margarita mix, a squeeze of juice from an orange and an entire lime, stowed in the freezer for a few hours to get slushy.
* When I first tried it, I thought mezcal was a type of tequila, but in fact it’s the other way around. All agave-derived alcohols are mezcals, but some mezcals, based on where they are produced, how they are distilled, and what type of agave they come from, are classified as tequila. See here and here for more.
** No, spicy is not usually categorized as one of the five tastes. That honor belongs to umami. But I think spicy is a definitive taste on its own that doesn’t necessarily intersect with one of the others. So for my purposes, I’m allotting it space.
Enough for 2-3 cocktail glasses,
depending on diameter (mine is about 3 inches across):
1½ teaspoons raw sugar
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon smoked chili powder (or just your favorite chili powder)
zest of one lime
small wedge of lime, to wet the lip of the glass
- On a small plate or the dry, clean lid of a container about an inch wider in diameter than your cocktail glass, combine the sugar, salt, chili powder, and lime zest.
- Holding the glass upside down, run the wedge of lime around the lip so it is evenly wet, but not dripping.
- Before the lime juice dries, lightly tamp or spin it through the dry mixture until the lip of the glass is evenly coated.
- Carefully pour in your cocktail, and enjoy.