Bar Talk: What makes a margarita bad?

Plus the recipe for a good margarita

A selection of well-made margaritas from Venga Venga in Snowmass. (Aspen Times archive)

Two weeks ago I had a bad margarita.

Why is this notable?

It wasn’t just a bad margarita that was too sweet or didn’t meet my standards, it was quite literally deemed undrinkable by everyone that I forced into having a sip. Also, it wasn’t just one bad margarita, it was two.

Here’s the story: I was out for drinks at a spot in Aspen I will not name because this is the first time I’ve experienced bad drinks there and I have to assume the restaurant and its bar staff were just having a horribly off day. I ordered a spicy margarita, with salt, it arrived and I took one sip and thought, “Nope, that’s awful, that can’t be what I ordered.”

After determining that it was in fact supposed to be a margarita and having friends I was with take a small sip only to wrinkle their noses in disgust and say, “You should send that back, something is wrong,” I did indeed send it back and politely asked for it to be remade as an original, not spicy, marg.

My second chance drink arrived and again one sip was enough to know that I might as well have just thrown my $16 in the trash.

This bad margarita experience while unfortunate has consumed a portion of my brain dedicated to drinks ever since as I try and pinpoint what could have made it so undrinkable?

When you strip it back to the basics, a margarita is just three things: tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur.

And in its purist form a margarita should be made from 100% agave tequila, the lime juice should be fresh and all the ingredients must be well shaken, not just mixed in the glass.

So what was wrong with the one I got?

Looking back on the bad taste experience, it seemed like it could have been missing an ingredient or the mix used was not well-balanced.

It tasted extra bitter, rather watery and devoid of any flavor except for a rancid sour note. It’s possible that the limes used were bad or, and I refuse to believe this was the case, the limes used were from concentrate instead of fresh-squeezed.

Another possibility is the person who batched the mix didn’t add enough orange liqueur or maybe forgot it all together. Without some triple sec or classic curaçao the acidity of the lime juice can sometimes be too overwhelming.

Finally, another contributing factor, although definitely not the main issue, could be that if it was from a batched mix, which I imaged it had to be since the bad experience was replicated twice, the drink was simply poured into my glass and never shaken, which impacts the taste as it prevents the ingredients from being properly incorporated and aerated.

A "Skinny" Mango Margarita garnished with a slice of citrus dipped in cinnamon. (AP)

Now that we’ve dissected what could have gone wrong, I don’t want to leave this column on a sour note. Instead, I’m going to attempt to right the wrongs of that margarita and leave you with a good taste in your mouth by sharing a family favorite margarita recipe.

This recipe came from my time spent living in San Antonio, Texas, and eating and drinking at Rosario’s Mexican Café y Cantina in Southtown. My parents loved the margaritas at Rosario’s so much that my dad convinced the bartender to both share the recipe and teach him how to make it.

Rosario’s of San Antonio Margarita:

1 fresh squeezed lime per drink

2-3 ounces of simple syrup (Simple syrup is 2 parts water to 1 part sugar, bring to slight boil stirring until sugar is dissolved.)

5 count* Hornito’s tequila

2 count Gran Gala Triple Orange

2 count Cointreau

Add to a shaker with ice and shake well. Strain and pour into a glass over ice. Salt or no salt around the rim of the glass is personal preference, choose what works best for you.

For a less expensive take on the above recipe:

Substitute a 5 count of a less expensive tequila

Substitute a 5 count of less expensive triple sec for Gran Gala and Cointreau

*A count is ½ ounce of alcohol

Margarita opinions

The blood orange and hot chile margaritas at Su Casa. (Aspen Times archive)

What makes a great margarita is of course subject to taste, but after polling my coworkers on who shakes up their favorites in the valley and their stance on the divisive salt or not salt issue, here are their opinions.

When it comes to salt, there was one decisively no salt and one yes salt person. Other salty thoughts were “easy on the salt,” “salt in the summer, no salt in the winter,” and “salt or not depends on the kind of margarita.”

Many coworkers lamented the loss of Jimmy’s as that was their go-to spot for margaritas before its closure. In lieu of Jimmy’s, here are the other favorite spots

– Red Mountain Grill, specifically made by Johnny

– Woody Creek Tavern

– El Korita’s in Willits, on the rocks

– Jalisco Grill in Basalt, specifically made by Armando

– Su Casa

– Venga Venga

And when asked what makes a margarita bad, the most frequent answer was using a pre-packaged mix.

A hibiscus margarita. (Culinary Institute of America)