Food & Drink

Building a better margarita and carving a flavorful path to summer fun

Kevin Hopper regards margaritas as holy to the summer ritual, and demands full reverence when shaking them at Capitol Bar on West State Street.
Kevin Hopper regards margaritas as holy to the summer ritual, and demands full reverence when shaking them at Capitol Bar on West State Street. For the Statesman

If you are one to throw the occasional backyard shindig, you likely know your way around a margarita recipe. And to be frank, I’m not talking about cheap tequila and Mr. & Mrs. T Margarita Mix. Please don’t stoop to that level for your guests. There is a simpler and better-tasting approach that will garner much more conversation and lasting memories.

I’m talking about fresh lime juice (no substitutes), a sweet element and tequila. That sweetness could come in the form of sugar, simple syrup or an orange liqueur such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier. My new very affordable favorite is Naranja Orange Liqueur as a substitute for Cointreau or Triple Sec.

Fresh lime juice makes a world of difference, and since the citrus and sugar elements are separate ingredients, it lends the bartender more freedom to have discretion over how sweet or tart the final product is.

I have always maintained that the simplest margarita recipe is half an ounce each of fresh-squeezed lime juice and simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water), and 2 ounces of premium tequila. Shake in a cocktail shaker for a good 30 seconds and dump it all in a big glass (salt-rimmed or not). You can’t go wrong.

However, the margarita is an iconic and simple summer cocktail, and one that is rife to individual interpretation. I am not one to mess around with classic cocktail recipes, but I have been playing around with margarita interpretations lately, just because.

The one that I have settled on, and placed on the new signature cocktail menu at Capitol Bar, is called El Capitan. It brings into play another sweet, yet familiar, flavor in pineapple juice, and the not-so-familiar herbal element of green chartreuse. The former lends a summery, tropical aspect to the drink, while the latter introduces a reedy, organic flavor that effectively cuts through the sweetness and creates a unique and satisfying balance. Add in the subtle spicy touch of serrano pepper simple syrup, and you have a showstopper in the works.

This is unmistakably a margarita recipe, but just a little bit different. Different enough to make your guests do a double-take after the first sip, lean in and give you a nod of approval. And isn’t that all a backyard party host is looking for?

If this performs well at your next outdoor soirée, think about experimenting with more obscure liqueurs, such as yellow chartreuse, Galliano, Benedictine or Dubonnet. Subtlety is key here, with a keen eye for striking just the right balance between sweet and sour. As for salt, just throw a pinch in the finished cocktail rather than taking the time to rim the glass. As they say, six of one, half dozen of the other.

El Capitan

2 ounces Lunazul Blanco Tequila

1 ounce Pineapple juice

.5 ounces Green Chartreuse

.5 ounces Lime juice

.5 ounces Serrano syrup

Measure all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake for 30 seconds. Strain into large rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with a pineapple wedge and maraschino cherry. Enjoy each drop. Repeat as necessary.