GENERALLY, COCKTAIL RECIPES can be blisteringly specific as to composition. Gin plus vermouth is a martini. Add pickled onion, and suddenly you call it a Gibson. Swap the gin for whiskey, and it’s a Manhattan. But when it comes to that most ubiquitous drink of summer, the margarita, things get a little more … nebulous.
No one knows who invented the margarita. Most likely it was a variation of a Prohibition-era drink called a “Daisy” that involved lime juice and orange liquor and brandy, with the brandy swapped for tequila. (“Margarita” is Spanish for “daisy,” lending this theory even more credence.) I’m skeptical of any of the myriad claims to original authorship, but I’m inclined to believe cocktail writer David Wondrich when he suggests the drink was popularized by tourists crossing the border into Mexico to escape the restrictions of the Volstead Act for a weekend.
The classic margarita recipe is tequila plus lime juice and orange liqueur (usually Triple Sec, sometimes Cointreau or Grand Marnier) served in a distinctively stepped coupe glass with a salted rim. The recipe is so simple as to be almost instinctual; after all, when you do tequila shots in the time-honored way (lick salt off your hand, take a shot of tequila and then suck on a lime wedge) you’re really just having a deconstructed margarita. But despite the seeming inevitability of this combination, the term “margarita” has expanded over the years to include drinks that bear no resemblance to the classic recipe at all.
No other drink’s name is so malleable and so amenable to variation (though “daiquiri” comes close).
Swap out the lime juice for strawberries? Still a margarita. Or pineapple? Still a margarita. Combine all that in a blender with ice and serve it like a slushie? Still a margarita. Salt on the rim, no salt on the rim, doesn’t matter — your drinks remain margaritas. The salt is supposed to counteract the bitterness of the orange liqueur on the palate, but some people opt to leave it off, and it doesn’t change the moniker of their beverage at all.
So what is the Platonic Ideal of margaritaness? What are the essential aspects without which you are drinking something that must go by some other name? Fruit juice seems to be a requirement most of the time, although there are variations that sub in fruity sodas or even vegetable juice. Many variations leave out the orange liqueur and replace it with Blue Curaçao, or even orange juice to make something called a “skinny margarita.” However, the base spirit, I think, must be made of agave.
You can swap the regular tequila for smoky mezcal, and the thing in your hand is still called a margarita. But if you use gin instead, you’re more or less drinking a gimlet. And if you use vodka, it’s suddenly a “Kamikaze.” For a craft-level drink, I recommend mezcal over any of the “cleaner”-tasting tequilas because you’ll end up with a far more interesting libation, swirling with the smoke of wild, roasted agave like a tangy, sippable campfire. It will taste very different from a regular margarita, but it will still go by the same name. But “tequila drink” isn’t simply synonymous with “margarita,” as there are the many other tequila-based concoctions such as the Tequila Sunrise and the Bloody Maria. And if you replace that tequila with sotol, another smoky Mexican spirit made with an agave-like plant from the asparagus family, your drink is still … a margarita.
The margarita is also socially egalitarian. Equally comfortable with any crowd, she can be fancy — mixed with fresh organic lime juice, bespoke salt, socially conscious sweetener (agave syrup, perhaps) and the finest top-shelf mezcal — and hold her head up high with the world’s finest craft cocktails any day. But she will also happily slum it, churned in batches in frozen slushie machines spiked with whatever tequila some taco joint bought in bulk to cool down sweaty partygoers on spring break. Either way, she retains her identity as a margarita without need for an asterisk and loses not an ounce of respect in the process. There is, however, one line you apparently cannot cross. If you use the classic recipe but forgo the orange liqueur and add some grapefruit soda to the mix as a bittering agent instead, your drink suddenly loses its identity as a margarita. At that point, for some mysterious reason, you must call it a “Paloma.”