First rule of margarita making: use good tequila.
That shudder-inducing stuff you shoot back on a night out? Leave it firmly to one side. If you want a delicious version of the classic Mexican cocktail, you need to use a super-tasty tequila.
Just like a great whisky, rum or gin, the best tequilas for margaritas taste smooth and have minimal alcoholic burn. Their complex flavours – for example of citrus, fruit or pepper – can pair with the lime juice, orange liqueur and salt in a margarita to amazing effect.
There are several different styles of tequila, and the main difference between them is whether they have been aged and, if so, for how long.
Blanco tequilas – also called silver, plato or white – are crystal clear and unaged. Meanwhile, reposado and añejo tequilas have been rested in oak barrels to imbue them with golden colour, smooth taste and extra flavour.
Most bartenders agree that the best tequila for margaritas is Blanco, because it is clean and fresh. However, there are no strict rules: If you prefer the extra-silky nature of a reposado (a tequila aged for between two and 12 months in oak), then go for it.
Tequila has rocketed in popularity over the last few years, with loads of new launches and celebrity endorsements. It’s great to see so much choice on the shelves, but some new tequilas are seriously expensive too; you're often talking £100 per bottle or more.
Unfortunately, price isn’t always an indicator of quality. But even when those uber-pricey bottles are worth the splurge, they’re often best drunk neat, much like a top-notch whisky.
So where does that leave us for margarita making? You need a happy medium: a great-tasting tequila, but one that doesn’t cost a fortune.
To get to the bottom of the issue, we've bought in drinks expert Alicia Miller to pick some of her current favourites. With enough lime, salt and orange liqueur, they’ll make every day feel like Cinco de Mayo.
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The Butterfly Cannon Silver Cristalino
- The Butterfly Cannon Silver Cristalino, £28.96 (50cl) from Master of Malt – buy here
As we’ve said, there are lots of different kinds of tequila. One of the newer, trendier styles is called cristalino.
Cristalinos are aged tequilas – often añejos – that have been charcoal-filtered to make them crystal clear, like a blanco.
I know what you’re thinking: if you’re going to remove the colour, why bother aging it at all? It’s because tequilas aged in barrels tend to have softer, sweeter, more approachable flavours than blancos. By resting the tequila and then filtering it, you get an ultra-smooth spirit with delicate vanilla and oak notes.
This cristalino is more affordable than most because it’s been made from tequila that’s been aged for just 30 days, rather than for years. It still has that lovely clean, smooth character you’d buy a cristalino for, but at a price point that suits margarita making.
In fact the price point seems even more fair when you realise this tequila is doing some good too: a portion of the profits goes towards supporting butterfly conservation.
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Tapatio Blanco Tequila
- Tapatio Blanco Tequila, £25.45 (50cl) from The Whisky Exchange – buy here
There’s a lot of upstart tequila brands out there, but Tapatio still does things the traditional way. Since 1937 it’s been made in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, to pretty much the same recipe.
For starters, the Camarena family grow their own agave plants. Then they use traditional horno ovens to bake the agave and old-school tahona wheels to crush it. Fermentation is natural and no water is added during the process.
Translation? This is an exceptional, very classic tequila. The agave flavour really comes through: to me it’s peppery, vegetal, fruity and even slightly sweet.
This is a tequila that doesn’t shy away from its roots, and that’s why it makes a fantastic classic margarita. No wonder it’s considered such a favourite in its home country of Mexico.
- El Sueño, £23 (70cl) from Amazon – buy here
Most of the best tequilas are made from 100% blue agave. But while these spirits taste great, there are some downsides.
Agave plants take between five and 12 years to mature, so there are questions around how sustainable 100% agave tequila is, especially given that tequila sales are soaring. Also, because using agave is labour-intensive and time-consuming, these tequilas can be very expensive.
That’s where El Sueño comes in. It is what’s known as a tequila mixto – a blend of agave and other sugars. In this case, piloncillo, a Mexican cane sugar.
Historically some tequila mixtos have been low quality, but this newcomer, owned by the people behind luxe tequila brand Vivir, is a game-changer. I think it’s truly delicious, with notes of cucumber, lime and pepper, and a light but lingering sweetness.
That £22 price point really hits the spot too. Perfect for that margarita night with mates.
1800 Silver Tequila
- 1800 Silver Tequila, £35 (70cl) from Amazon – buy here
If you’ve ever had tequila – and even if you haven’t – you’ll have heard of Jose Cuervo. Over 200 years ago, Mr Cuervo began cultivating blue agave plants in Mexico, and today his name is synonymous with the spirit.
One of the Jose Cuervo company family brands, 1800 is made from 100% blue agave sourced from the Jalisco highlands. Light, floral, smooth and clean-tasting, it’s got freshness for your margaritas, but body too.
This is my margarita spirit of choice for the tequila sceptical. While there is agave flavour in there, it’s not OTT. Once you add in the lime, orange liqueur and salt, it’s especially easy to drink.
- G4 Blanco, £41.94 (75cl) from Master of Malt – buy here
I almost didn’t include this tequila on my list, for one reason: I like it too much. It’s so tasty that I actually prefer to sip it neat, not mix it into margaritas.
But ultimately, G4 is great value for money – half the price or less than many other tequilas of its character and quality – so you really can justify using it in your margaritas.
Expect lots of complexity: it’s floral, fruity, grassy, buttery, mineral. If you still think of the Mexican spirit as something for shooting down in a bar, this will change your mind. It’s worth savouring, just like a fine whisky, rum or cognac.
The reason it’s so delicious is a mix of know-how and care. Owner Felipe J. Camarena comes from the family that’s been making Tapatio since the 1930s, so he has generations of experience to back him up. Add to that agave grown on great soil and craft production methods, and you have one fantastic tequila.
El Rayo Plata
- El Rayo Plata, £34.95 (70cl) from The Whisky Exchange – buy here
Tequila newbie? You need something really smooth drinking.
Enter, El Rayo. This is a contemporary tequila brand that’s been created in the UK, by two childhood mates living in Peckham.
It’s actually been designed to be mixed with tonic, in a Mexican take on a G&T. While that’s a delicious serve (I can vouch for it), the tequila’s silky character and herbaceous, citrussy flavours also work splendidly in a margarita.
Each one of the agave plants that go into making this tequila has been hand-planted and grown for a full eight years before harvest. As they say, you can’t rush perfection.
Olmeca Tequila Blanco
- Olmeca Tequila Blanco, £22.25 (70cl) from Master of Malt – buy here
Like El Sueño, listed above, Olmeca is what’s known as a mixto tequila. It’s made mostly from agave, but with some other fermentable sugars too.
And as fair as mixtos go, this one is smooth drinking. To me it has a great balance of sweetness and pepper, and an underlying vegetal note. Part of that character will be thanks to the prime Los Altos highland soils.
This is a great go-to if you’re having mates around for a cocktail party. Even if you end up powering through the whole bottle in one (very fun) gathering, it’s solid value.
Próspero Blanco Tequila
- Próspero Blanco Tequila, £49.99 (70cl) from Selfridges – buy here
George Clooney, Michael Jordan, even Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – it seems like every celebrity has their own tequila brand. This newly launched one is from a little global superstar called Rita Ora.
Spirit production, including tequila, is traditionally a male-dominated world, so it’s nice to see a brand that’s not only backed by a woman (Rita is Chief Creative Officer) but made by one: Stella Anguiano, who actually crafts the spirit, is one of the first female master tequila distillers.
Próspero is made in the Jalisco lowlands, an area which characteristically produces more robust, earthy and spicy tequilas. This one also has distinct notes of vanilla, lending a detectable sweet sensation to each sip.
It’s a pricey bottle, so it may be best suited to pro margarita makers. Or, of course, as a gift for that massive Rita Ora fan in your life.
A margarita is one of the simplest cocktails to make. You only need four ingredients: tequila, orange liqueur (triple sec), lime juice and ice.
Because it’s so simple, the quality of the ingredients really matters. Make sure you use the freshest limes you can find and, as I’ve already said, quality booze.
Begin by rimming your glass – you can use classic margarita glasses, coupe glasses or even tumblers – with salt. Rub the wet edge of a cut piece of lime around your glass’s rim. Then, roll the rim gently through a saucer of kosher salt. Leave to set while you prepare the rest of your drink.
The classic recipe for a margarita is easy to remember because everything is done by ratios:
- 3 parts tequila
- 2 parts triple sec
- 1 part lime juice
However, feel free to experiment with this to find a ratio that suits your taste. Some people use almost equal parts of each ingredient, while others use more lime juice. Personally, I like mine with more lime juice and less orange liqueur, so I’d probably pair 50ml tequila with 30ml lime juice and 25ml liqueur.
Pour all your ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with plenty of ice, and then shake hard until the outside of the shaker is frosty to the touch. Strain into your prepared glass, and you’re good to go.
Really love tequila? Consider making a Tommy’s Margarita instead. Invented in San Francisco at Tommy’s Restaurant, this spin on the original replaces the orange liqueur with sweet agave syrup – letting those tequila flavours really come through.
A post shared by Tommy's (@tommysmexican)
What is tequila made from?
As far as spirits go, tequila has a unique base ingredient. It’s made from blue agave, a plant that looks like a giant spiny succulent.
After the agave is harvested, its core is baked in ovens, then shredded and processed to get the juice for alcoholic fermentation. Once the juice has been fermented, it is distilled and then aged anywhere from a couple of weeks (for blancos) to years (for añejos).
Tequila, like Champagne or Port, has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which means it can only be made in the Jalisco state of Mexico and a handful of other places. If it’s made anywhere else, it will be labelled as mezcal or agave spirit.
Many of the finest tequilas are made from 100% blue agave. If yours has been made this way, it’ll be stated on the label.
Tequilas that don’t state ‘100% agave’ on the label are what’s known as a ‘tequila mixto’ – a blend of blue agave with cane or corn sugars. These are often much more affordable. Higher quality ones can be good for making mixed drinks such as margaritas.
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