When making the perfect margarita, simple is always better

Joe Coleman and other mixologists walk us through how to make a perfect margarita at home. (Credit: David Benthal)

It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the margarita. The tequila cocktail has been served in many forms, from frozen concoctions to a sickly sweet mix of heavy-handed triple sec.

But North Fork mixologists are here to tell you the perfect margarita is, in one word, simple — both in terms of ingredients and ease when it comes to mixing up a batch at home. 

“The first margarita I learned to make was terrible,” said Joe Coleman, head mixologist at Grace & Grit in Southold. “It was sour mix from a soda gun and a ton of triple sec and Grand Marnier. As I got more into bartending, the recipe I ended up falling on was simple.”

Coleman has adopted what’s known as “Tommy’s Margarita.” The drink was born at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco in the 1990s. The West Coast’s take is a slimmed-down incarnation that uses only tequila, fresh lime, agave, and salt for garnish — if you’re so inclined.

“Tommy’s is the gold standard,” agreed Robbie Howie, bartender at Brix & Rye in Greenport. “The important thing is that it doesn’t have the orange liqueur. If you add another spirit to the drink it is not a real margarita.”

Don’t be afraid to try this at home. (Credit: David Benthal)

The Tommy’s Margarita recipe is as follows:

2 ounces tequila

1 ounce fresh lime juice

.5 ounce agave

It’s the nuances of mixing, of course, that make the drink stand out. Soak in these tips before your next cocktail party for a margarita that is sure to impress.

The tequila

Tequila is at the heart of a margarita — just don’t bother getting too fancy with which brand to use.

“The number one rule is to not overspend on tequila, especially if you’re mixing it with citrus,” Coleman said. “People go crazy buying $50 bottles. I’d say to spend $25 to $30 max.”

Coleman recommends an aged reposado tequila because it has deeper flavors than other varieties. Just make sure it is 100 percent agave tequila, he said.

“Tequila is an agave spirit, so if it isn’t 100-percent agave, it’s not a true tequila,” Howie said.

Stick with a two-ounce pour for a balanced, yet boozy cocktail.

The lime

Store-bought lime juice isn’t going to cut it.

“Don’t use the pre-juiced limes that come in a bottle,” Coleman said. “There is so much citrus acid in those things to keep it shelf-safe that you’ll end up not wanting to have anything acidic ever again after sipping a drink with that in it.”

Fresh is best. One lime typically produces about a half-ounce to an ounce of juice, so you’re going to need at least one lime per drink you want to serve. The cost per lime may be more than the pre-bottled juice, but it’s always worth the price.

“Using a fresh product is the best way to go because it takes a simple cocktail to a new level,” said Sunita Schwartz, of Noah’s in Greenport. “It’s more refreshing because it tastes better.”

Strain the fresh-squeezed juice with a fine sieve to remove the pulp and seeds before mixing, Howie added.

The agave

It’s time to make a simple syrup. Don’t worry; it’s a lot easier than it sounds. Thick agave syrup — almost honeylike in consistency — can be purchased at the grocery store.

The homemade simple syrup is one part hot water to one part agave. Microwave the water in a mug until it’s piping warm — roughly 60 to 90 seconds. Combine the water with the agave to create a simple syrup.

“Adding the water makes the agave syrup thinner,” Coleman said. “It will incorporate the flavors into the drink better.”

Pro tip: Portioned-out ingredients can be placed in small containers until ready to mix.

Coleman mixes it up at Grace & Grit in Southold. (Credit: David Benthal)

The salt

Bear in mind that not everyone is a fan of salt and even those who are may not want a mouthful each sip. Circumvent this faux pas by only salting one side of the glass. Don’t salt the rim at all.

“If it is not around the whole rim, it gives people the opportunity to try it with and without salt,” Coleman said. “The salt also won’t fall into the drink if it is on the side.”

Take a plate and pour out a generous amount of salt. “I use traditional sea salt, but you can pick fun sea salts nearly everywhere,” Coleman said. “Do something more than just table salt — something thicker like sea salt or Kosher salt from the supermarket. It is a nice garnish. When you pick up the drink it’s the first thing you’ll look at.”

Hold the glass upside down, take a lime wedge and slide it across one side of the glass and lightly roll in the salt for an even coat.

“Holding the glass upside down prevents the juices from running into the glass,” Howie said. “That way the drink won’t be too acidic.”

The shake

Ice is crucial to the shake. The ice should be a true cube shape — not the stuff from your freezer’s ice machine. The hardy cubed ice doesn’t chip apart as easily and therefore won’t dilute the drink.

Coleman and Howie both mentioned they like using the ice sold at Polywoda Beverage in Southold for cocktails.

Add five or six cubes to the cocktail shaker along with the tequila, lime and agave simple syrup. Give it a quick, hard shake. The more you shake the more you dilute the drink. You’ll know when to stop when the mixer frosts and becomes cold to the touch.

Strain the liquid into the glass atop fresh ice — using the ice from the shaker would only dilute the cocktail.

You can also try a dry shake — shaking up the ingredients without the ice — which will froth up the drink for extra visual appeal.

The glassware

Margaritas are often served in a distinctive top-heavy glass, but that’s not necessary. Unlike the way glassware shape impacts the flavor profile of a Guinness, this cocktail can be enjoyed out of your glass of choice.

“I use a regular rocks glass,” said Coleman. “The short, stubby glass is the perfect size.”

“They could drink it out of a boot, if they wanted,” said Howie, who also prefers to serve the cocktail in a rocks glass.

The twist

The at-home margarita doesn’t have to lack flair. Adding in seasonal produce is an easy way to achieve a twist on the aforementioned simple recipe. Throughout the summer, Noah’s features a handful of rotating margaritas that contain fresh puree made with local produce.

“Using seasonal fruits from farmers markets makes the basic recipe special,” Schwartz said.

Another option is infusing your tequila — it’s not difficult and not spur of the moment. Start with something in-season. Howie suggests infusing two quarts of strawberries per 750 ml bottle of tequila. Let the two ingredients sit in a sealed container until the berries turn white (roughly a week). The infused tequila will give fruitiness to the cocktail without being overpowering.

Different flavors can be introduced through fresh juices. Coleman often opts to replace the agave syrup with a simple fruit syrup — using both would drive up the sugar content to an undesirable level.

And if you’re looking for a cocktail with a little less of a bite, add fizz.

“We put in club soda to make it lighter for people who are concerned about calories — it will have little less sweetness,” Schwartz said. “Everybody likes it differently.”