Margaritas: Shake It Up

Who’s ready for another round of margaritas? Served on the rocks or frozen, this queen of agave spirit cocktails bursts with the tang of citrus, the sweetness of simple syrup, hints of orange and earthy notes of tequila. A staple in Southwestern culture, the margarita’s popularity extends beyond regional boundaries, and for several years it’s been ranked America’s favorite cocktail. With rising interest in craft cocktails and small-batch tequilas and mezcals, a new generation of bartenders are adding fresh twists to this classic drink.

A close-up of a margarita
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Farm to Cocktail

Tequila, the main ingredient in a margarita, is made exclusively from the Blue Weber Tequilana, also known as the blue agave plant, a culturally and economically significant product native to a designated region of Mexico. Its namesake comes from the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. Legally distributed tequila and a related agave spirit, mezcal, can only be made in Mexico. While tequila can only come from blue agave plants grown in five states—Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas—mezcal can come from any agave varieties grown in any region of the country.

Blue agave plant
Tequila can only be made from blue agave plants in five specific states in Mexico. Photo by Stephan Hinni on Unsplash

“Think of mezcal as the smokier, older cousin of tequila,” says Ardian “Ardi” Dulaku, assistant director of food and beverage at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona, Ariz. He developed the beverage program at the resort’s restaurant, SaltRock Southwest Kitchen, a decade ago, and continues to expand it.

“All tequilas are considered mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila,” he adds. “It’s like wine: all champagnes are wines, but not all wines are champagne. Tequila can only be made from one specific type of agave in a specific region, while mezcal can come from a different variety of agaves from all over Mexico.”

Bartenders pose for the camera as they make margaritas
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Other key differences between the two spirts are that mezcal typically has a higher proof, or alcohol content by volume, than tequila. Tequila is made by first steaming the agaves, while mezcal is produced by cooking the plants underground using traditional methods, which gives each variety a unique smoky taste and natural flavors created by the environment in which it is grown.

It takes six to eight years for an agave plant to reach harvest maturity. Using traditional, century-old skills passed down through generations, the agave farmers, known as jimadors, hand-harvest the plants.

Tequila Types

Blanco, aka “Silver”: This type of tequila has not been aged. It is preferred for most margaritas and mixers, because of its pure agave-forward taste and price point.

Reposado: In Spanish, reposado means “rested,” so this tequila is aged two to 12 months in oak barrels. Its smooth oak notes are compatible with fall flavors, such as cinnamon, spice and orange.

Añejo: Aged one to four years, añejo, meaning “old” in Spanish, has deep, rich flavor. It’s the preferred choice to drink on the rocks, not to make mixed drinks. It also comes with a higher price than the above options.

Extra Añejo: Tequila aged more than four years falls under this luxury label.

Andy Arrington of Maverick Beverage Company, a distributor of select wines and spirits, has traveled to the agave fields of Mexico and experienced the time- and labor-intensive process, as well as the pride that goes into every bottle of tequila or mezcal produced. Every margarita made helps sustain communities across Mexico and generations of families who have dedicated their lives to producing the products.

“They take it very seriously—it’s a boom or bust [business],” he says. “We’re in the biggest tequila boom in history—there’s one about every 25 years, give or take—and the families who grow agaves and do the backbreaking work or own distilleries are getting a generational paycheck. It gives you a lot of respect for what they do, and it’s great to see the people who are doing it right thriving.”

A bartender mixes margaritas
Photo by Jennifer Denison

The Rise of the Craft Cocktail

Craft cocktails, including margaritas, have been around for decades. However, the idea of using pure, quality spirits and fresh ingredients didn’t gain momentum until the 2000s.

“I got into it around 2005, and it was really a niche thing,” says Arrington, who was a bartender in Texas for 13 years before going to work for Maverick Beverage Company. “If you wanted a drink with fresh ingredients and quality spirits you had to go to bars in major cities like New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. In 2010, there was more momentum, but even today there’s still a small percentage of the population seeking adventurous cocktails.”

Dulaku started bartending in Sedona in 2010. At the time there wasn’t a strong craft cocktail program in the area, so he started experimenting and traveling to larger cities to develop SaltRock Kitchen’s beverages. Today, the hotel lobby bar has a diverse menu of artisan cocktails, including a half-dozen seasonal and regional margaritas.

“We’re different, yet approachable,” he says. “We specialize in margarita and agave spirit cocktails made with fresh ingredients and balance. There’s a little bit of thought, pride and execution that goes into a craft cocktail.”

Masterful Margaritas

A paloma and makings for margaritas
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Ordering a margarita at a restaurant or knowing what ingredients to buy to make your own at home can be daunting. And many settle for the “house margarita,” or the least expensive or most readily available ingredients.

El Classic Margarita

A favorite at SaltRock Southwest Kitchen in Sedona, Arizona, this light, refreshing margarita is simple but doesn’t skimp on flavor.

◆ 2 ounces high-quality blanco tequila
◆ 1 to 1¼ ounces fresh lime juice
◆ 1 ounce agave mixed with equal amount of water
◆ Salt for rim (optional)

Measure ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake for 10 seconds. Ardian Dulaku, who developed the restaurants craft cocktail menu, recommends shaking in a circular motion to bring out the flavors. Strain and pour over ice. Garnish with lime if desired.

“There’s not a more abused drink than the margarita by virtue of its popularity,” says Arrington. “When it’s made properly with fresh ingredients and quality, responsibly made tequila, it’s given the same care and attention as any other cocktail and shows respect for the spirit and the culture that surrounds it.”

Both Arrington and Dulaku have served thousands of margaritas. Here are their tips for making the perfect margarita at home.

1. Buy good booze.

“One thing I’m super passionate about is that the tequila in a margarita needs to be high quality, meaning that it’s made without industrial processes and the use of additives,” says Arrington, adding that most tequilas contain additives, such as caramel color, glycerin, vanilla, sugar or artificial sweeteners, especially celebrity-endorsed tequila.

It can be hard to decipher a tequila label, but Dulaku looks for phrases like “distilled in copper, five generations, a bottle number, estate grown, 100 percent blue agave, and hecho en Mexico [made in Mexico].”

“The more information on the bottle, the better the tequila and the more pride the producer has,” he says. “It shows they want you to know the whole story about the tequila.”

There are tequilas that cost $100 or more, but Arrington says that you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a good tequila.

Arrington recommends looking at the Tequila Matchmaker app, which offers detailed production information and evaluations on retail brands.

“There are affordable options, but they don’t always have the best retail distribution outside of bars,” he says. “Two bartender darlings that are starting to get consumer recognition are Cimarron and Arette, and they retail for around $40 for a 1-liter bottle and are made by larger growing families. Two of my favorite up-and-coming tequilas are Volans and Wild Common.”

Arrington also doesn’t recommend skimping on orange liqueur. Instead, buy a quality brand, such as Combier L’Original Liqueur D’Orange or Cointreau.

Some of the small-batch, single-estate boutique tequilas can be hard to find, but Dulaku recommends asking a liquor store if they could order it for you.

“Sometimes you can’t find a brand because nobody has asked for it,” he says, adding that you may be able to order direct to your doorstep online. However, first make sure your state allows alcohol delivery.

2. Use fresh citrus.

The flavor of a lemon or lime changes after it’s been cut and juiced, so both bartenders recommend freshly squeezing the citrus the same day you’ll make margaritas. Dulaku has also noticed that the flavor of citrus changes with the seasons, so you may have to adjust your recipe to account for that. If you’re wanting to add fruit to the margarita, create a puree of fresh fruit rather than using a premade mixer.

3. Strive for balance.

“A craft margarita is created by balancing the acids and sugars, as opposed to pouring something premade,” says Dulaku. “People go wrong making a margarita too strong or too large. We have people say our margaritas aren’t strong enough. They are getting 40 percent tequila in their drink, but it’s balanced so they don’t taste the booze.”

4. Shake for 10 to 15 seconds.

Dulaku says that the flavors of fruit juices come alive when the juice is aerated through shaking. When you pour it into the glass, the aeration creates a light froth.

Classic Margarita

This is Andy Arrington’s favorite margarita recipe to make by the glass or pitcher to share with friends. If preparing a pitcher, he says to change the measurement to cups, rather than ounces, add ¹/₃ to
½ cup simple syrup and let it sit 15 minutes before giving it a stir and serving.

◆ 2 ounces high-quality blanco tequila
◆ ¾ ounce high-quality orange liqueur, such as Combier L’Original Liqueur D’Orange or Cointreau
◆ ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
◆ ¼ ounce simple syrup¼ ounce simple syrup
◆ Salt for rim (optional)

Measure ingredients and pour into a shaker, then add a scoop of ice. Shake hard for 10 to 15 seconds and pour directly into a glass with ice.

Finishing Touches

Rim salt and the glass are subtle details that finish a craft margarita. At SaltRock, Dulaku and his bartenders make salted, cinnamon and spiced rims to enhance the flavors of their signature margaritas. There are several flavored salts on the market that range from sweet to smoky.

Brûléed fruit is added to a mezcal margarita to bring out the smoky flavor
Brûléed fruit, cinnamon sticks, sage or rosemary bring out the smoky flavor of a mezcal margarita. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Dulaku recommends serving margaritas in 8- to 10-ounce rocks glasses for functionality.

“They’re easier to salt, store and clean [than stemmed bowl-style glasses], and you can use them for other cocktails.”

When it comes to making margaritas, Arrington says not to overthink it.

“It’s easy to forget that drinks are supposed to be fun,” he says. “If you use quality ingredients and measure them properly, it’ll probably be fine. If not, you learned something and can try again until you find what you like and can enjoy it with friends.”


This refreshing twist on the margarita is one of Ardian Dulaku’s personal cool-down drinks during sizzling summers.

◆ 2 ounces high-quality blanco tequila
◆ 3 ounces (or enough to fill the glass) Squirt grapefruit soda
◆ Squeeze of fresh lime juice

Measure ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake 10 seconds, strain and pour over ice. Garnish with grapefruit or lime wedge if desired.

This article about margaritas appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Western Life Today magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Jennifer Denison

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