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The Margarita Knows No Bounds

“What kind of Margaritas do you have?”

This is a common question at Leyenda, the Brooklyn bar that is arguably the city’s best-known cocktail den to emphasize Latin American spirits. Owner Ivy Mix has an answer, but it’s usually not the kind the customer is looking for.

“I say, ‘Just the one,’” she says. “Well, two, technically: tequila or mezcal.”

Sometimes the customer will persist and examine the drinks menu. They’ll point to a drink that bears some Margarita-esque qualities and say, “Well, that’s a Margarita!” And Mix will reply, “No, that’s a cocktail.”

Mix is a Margarita purist. The drink, to her mind, is a Daisy featuring tequila, lime juice, and orange liqueur. But her variety-loving clientele can hardly be faulted for expecting more than one version of the most popular cocktail in America. That’s because for every new cocktail bar that sticks to its guns, Margarita-wise, there are five that now follow an anything-goes approach.

Take Hellbender Nighttime Café, which opened recently in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens and calls itself a “Margarita bar” — with good reason. The drinks menu has five different “Margaritas” on it and none of them are standard Margaritas, strictly speaking. There’s a Tommy’s Margarita, the modern interpretation that eschews orange liqueur. There’s a Margarita & Soda, which reinvents the drink as a highball. A third has pineapple in it; another strawberry liqueur; and another sports rhum agricole and Chartreuse, of all things.

“To be a Margarita bar, you have to have a lot of Margarita options,” explains Ben Howell, Hellbender’s director of operations. “There’s a lot of room to play in the Margarita sandbox. There are a variety of Margaritas that people think are classic. But that has changed as times have changed.”

Just as we now live in a second “’tini” age, in which the definition of what can qualify as a Martini has become more and more elastic, we are simultaneously witnessing the dawn of a new “rita” era.

“I think that the thing that happened to Margaritas is the same thing that happened to Martinis in the late 1990s and aughts, where everything was a something-Martini,” says Mix. “The Apple Martini, the Espresso Martini. Why did we call that a Martini? I have no idea. And now we have Margaritas, because tequila is the fad, not vodka. And anything that has citrus and any agave product in it seems to be called a Margarita.”

Margarita menus are nothing new. Mexican restaurant chains have for years offered Margaritas in innumerable colors and fruit flavors. But today’s variations on the drink have evolved alongside the cocktail revival of the past couple of decades. Riffs now include unusual ingredients, infusions, and syrups that take the drink well beyond the sugary strawberry Margaritas of yesteryear.

“I wanted to input a little creaminess into the Margarita to cut back on the citrus aspect. It was a very wild swing. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off.”

Superbueno, the most high-profile new cocktail bar in the nation to highlight Mexican culture, has as its house drink something called the Mushroom Margarita. The mezcal in it is infused with an earthy fungus called huitlacoche, which is considered a delicacy in Mexico. Owner Ignacio Jimenez is also working on another drink he plans to call the Breakfast Margarita. It will be a cross between a standard Marg and the Breakfast Martini, a modern classic cocktail employing marmalade that was invented by London bartender Salvatore Calabrese in the 1990s.

“My personality is always to create,” says Jimenez, “so I think every cocktail can be represented in many different ways. I’m not a purist. I always like to play around with a cocktail to bring in some new flavors that you would never see.”

At Clavel, the celebrated Mexican restaurant in Baltimore, owner Lane Harlan offers three variations on the standard house Margarita: a spicy one, which adds a house chili shrub; a bitter version, which includes a house amaro; and a cilantro-honey-flavored Margarita.

At The Cabinet, the East Village bar that boasts the widest selection of mezcal in New York City, head bartender Diego Rivera has two Margaritas on the menu. One is preceded by the adjective “lemongrass” and the other “cinnamon.” The latter is spiked with a cinnamon tincture; the former features the lemongrass-flavored agave spirit Mal Bien Zacate Limón, lemongrass-infused soju, St Germain elderflower liqueur, and yuzu juice. Rivera calls his Marg-building process “taking a classic back to its base, but then breaking it down in stages.”

When Evan Hawkins opened Romeo’s — also in the East Village, which has a claim to being alt-Marg central right now — he wanted every drink on the menu to be familiar, yet still grab the customer’s attention through an unusual twist. And so his house Margarita couldn’t be the standard tequila type or even the more edgy mezcal sort. It had to be the Spicy Avocado Margarita.

“I never understood why you would add a white sugar–laden industrial product to an agave-based cocktail. It doesn’t improve the drink.”

“I wanted to input a little creaminess into the Margarita to cut back on the citrus aspect,” he explains. Hawkins found a way to incorporate blended avocado into a syrup, which he mixes with the usual agave spirit, curaçao, and lime juice. “It was a very wild swing,” he admits. “I didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off.”

Perhaps nobody has created more modern Margarita variations than Christine Wiseman, the beverage director of the Bar Lab Hospitality Group. Every menu Wiseman devises features at least one cocktail called a Margarita. She says she has invented at least 50 different spins on the drink. The most recent, which is currently on the menu at Lillistar, a rooftop bar in Williamsburg’s Moxy Hotel, is called the Jazzy Jerk Margarita. It includes Sorel liqueur and Jamaican jerk bitters.

“To be honest, I just think people want to see the word ‘Margarita,’” says Wiseman. “That’s why it’s called Jazzy Jerk Margarita. I could f*cking name everything on a menu ‘Margarita’ and they’d all be No. 1 sellers. It’s the word.”

You can quickly assess how much things have changed in Margaritaville by asking bartenders and bar owners what the bare minimum is for a cocktail to earn the name Margarita. Nobody will give you the same answer.

For Hellbender’s Howell, the drink need only have an agave spirit and citrus juice, and must be “bright.” Jimenez echoes that idea but adds salt to the ingredient mix. Wiseman says it must have “lime juice and agave spirit and the word ‘Margarita,’ and that’s about it.” Mix insists the drink must include triple sec as well or it can’t be considered a Margarita. She even goes so far as to say the liqueur is the most important part of the cocktail. Harlan, meanwhile, doesn’t think triple sec has any business in a Margarita. “I never understood why you would add a white sugar–laden industrial product to an agave-based cocktail,” she says. “It doesn’t improve the drink.”

“It feels like the people’s drink.”

The wealth of variations within the Margarita genre extends to the so-called Spicy Margarita, which is to the drink what the Dirty Martini is to the Martini: an off-menu item that is constantly ordered and can never be sensory enough. In the past, bars answered this demand by simply swapping some jalapeño-infused tequila for the regular stuff. But today, things have gotten more creative. Clavel uses a house-made chili shrub. Superbueno uses a chili tincture, as does Cabinet and Leyenda. Hawkins uses a special spicy salt.

The Margarita-verse will probably continue expanding, partly because Marg drinkers — like their Martini-loving counterparts — feel an innate ownership of the drink. “It feels like the people’s drink,” says Molly McClintock, a cocktail consultant who recently worked with NYC Japanese restaurant Nami Nori to create the Matcharita 2.0, a Marg with matcha, yuzu, rice wine, and egg white. “My parents didn’t know how to make cocktails, but they knew how to make a Margarita. It’s a drink that you can put your spin on,” she adds. “What people like about Margaritas is you can choose your own adventure.”

The article The Margarita Knows No Bounds appeared first on VinePair.

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