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Tasting Away in Margaritaville

No one seems sure of the origins of the humble margarita. Both Juarez and Tijuana lay claim to what has become the most popular mixed cocktail in the United States. One version alleges that in 1942 a Juarez bartender mixed a French Cointreau with Mexican tequila, worm and all, in celebration of a customer’s birthday. Another story insists margaritas were invented during World War II as a cheap alternative to hard whiskey, which was expensive and hard to get. According to Texas Monthly magazine, a Dallas restaurateur named Mariano Martinez created the first frozen margarita sometime in the Fifties.

Connoisseurs of the “true margarita” insist that it be made with only four ingredients: one ounce of fresh lime juice, one and a half ounces of tequila, one ounce of an orange liqueur, and a sprinkling of salt, which is then shaken (not stirred) and served over rocks.

You’d think there was no point in screwing with Jimmy Buffet’s favorite libation.

But some do experiment, particularly in Santa Fe, which is considered by many as the margarita capital of the southwest. And when you drink alcohol at seven thousand feet, the city’s official altitude, the margarita definitely has attitude: make sure you’re walking home or have a designated driver.

The brands and flavors of the four ingredients can vary or be embellished, allowing almost as many house or specialty margaritas as there are establishments that serve them. Raspberries, mango, prickly pear or watermelon can be added—one recipe even suggests throwing in a little beer—and for the mandatory orange liqueur, Gran Marnier is often substituted for Cointreau or triple sec. Other restaurants substitute lemon for lime, or mix the two, and Mucho Gusto, because it doesn’t have a full liquor license, makes its margaritas with agave wine instead of tequila. In Santa Fe, some margarita formulas are proprietary, as secret as someone else’s chili or posole recipe. Classified or not, we counted over 51 restaurants in the City Creative serving margaritas, and some, like Ore House or Maria’s, have extensive margarita menus.

Tequila is the biggest variable in determining the quality and price of a margarita. According to Wikipedia, over 200 million Agave tequilana species are grown every year in and around the state of Jalisco, Mexico. Tequila is produced by removing a mature plant’s heart, normally weighing between 75 and 200 pounds, stripping its leaves and heating it at a high temperature to remove the sap, which is fermented and distilled. Other beverages like mescal and pulque are also produced from blue and other agaves by different methods (though still using the sap).

Tequila is available in several styles, including plata (silver) or blanca (white), reposada (rested or aged six months in oak barrels), and añejo (aged for one year in wood barrels.) The reposada and añejo are gold in color partly because of the oak aging but sometimes food coloring is added. All of these factors determine rarity and price.

“Across the United States, gold tequila outsells white about 80 percent to 20 percent,” said Keith Voswinkel of Terk Distributing in Abilene. “Gold gives a margarita some color and makes it a more attractive drink. In some margaritas where you’re using a lot of limeade or other ingredients as mixers, I don’t know if it matters which type of spirits you use. But if you’re making the classic margarita recipe, it becomes more important what you put in it. As consumers have become more attached to ‘boutique’ or specialty tequilas, those with handmade, 100 percent agave are in high demand.”

Al Lucero, owner of Maria’s restaurant on Cordova and author of The Great Margarita Book (available on Amazon), knows what makes a good margarita great, and a great one sublime (mostly, the purity of the tequila). Maria’s is widely regarded as the establishment in Santa Fe for anyone seeking the holy grail of margaritas (see Al’s menu of 100 varieties). His drinks are not to be taken lightly, like a caged fighter going for the kill. Sip, don’t gulp.

It’s hard to find a bad margarita in Santa Fe, but here are ten bars or restaurants that we think offer something special in the agave universe. If we left off your favorite, let us know. Again, there’re no losers in Santa Fe.

Maria’s. 555 West Cordova Road. 983 7929. Maria’s serves over 100 different margaritas, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. The strawberry margarita and peach margarita get lots of attention, and both are made with Bols triple-sec and Cuervo silver tequila. Maria’s serves only tequila that’s at least 51% agave, and if you can afford it, some drinks are 100% octane.

Ore House on the Plaza. 50 Lincoln Avenue. 983 8687. Over 40 margaritas are yours, with prices up to $35, and lots of exotic tequilas including Jesus Reyes Blanco, Hornitos Añejo, and Vivda de Romer. Ore House also serves a non-alcoholic margarita, but some swear it still gets them high.

Compound Restaurant. 653 Canyon Road. 982 4353. There is nothing exotic about the Compound’s house margarita. Like the rest of the restaurant’s offerings, where style, taste, freshness and quality are unrivaled, the prickly pear margarita has 12 year old Herradura Silver tequila, Cointreau, fresh sour mix, and prickly pear puree served on the rocks with a salted rim. Neither understated nor over the top, the recipe strikes many locals and visitors as perfection.

Coyote Café. 132 Water Street. 983 1615. The Coyote’s rooftop cantina may offer the best ambience in Santa Fe for sipping margaritas. Serving both frozen and on the rocks, Coyote uses Sauza Gold tequila, triple sec, and fresh lime juice. The frozen varieties are superb (lime or strawberry), and for the brave, try “La Ultima” with El Tesoro Gold, Cointreau and fresh lime juice.

Geronimo. 724 Canyon Road. 982 1500. This world class restaurant has reasonably priced ($8-13) mouth-watering margaritas, all using Don Julio Blanco Tequila. Their “spicy passion fruit margarita” blends jalapeno-infused tequila, passion fruit juice, triple sec and fresh lime juice. The “strawberry and coconut margarita” mixes Cazadores Blanco tequila with triple sec and coconut-strawberry puree. The “smoking margarita” has Del Maguey San Luis del Rio mezcal, Gran Marnier, and fresh lime juice. Finally, the “guava-basil margarita” is an overture of 1800 Silver Tequila, Cointreau, guava nectar and fresh basil.

The Shed. 113 ½ East Palace Avenue. 982 9030. Many visitors rank The Shed numero uno not only for the best northern New Mexico cuisine, but the smoothest margarita in town. The margarita menu includes six silvers, four golds, and four frozen (lemon, strawberry, mango and prickly pear). According to one Shed bartender, the “Gold Coin” (with reposada tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime) and “Pure Heart” (Corazon Blanco, Cointreau, and fresh lime) are crowd favorites.

El Farol. 808 Canyon Road. 983 9912. For something different, this popular and often raucous Canyon Road bar offers its “Melon Mezcalito,” with one ounce of mescal, half an ounce of triple sec, half an ounce of Midori, three quarters ounce of fresh lime juice, one ounce fresh orange juice, and a lime wheel, all strained into a chilled martini glass. This neon-green drink is made with an intensely smoky flavor.

Santacafé. 231 Washington. 984 1788. Santacafé bartender Jason Hopper recently won the First Annual Grand Margarita Contest with this sweetheart: two ounces Chinaco Reposada tequila, one ounce Gran Marnier, two ounces fresh lime juice—strained into a chilled glass with a salted rim and garnish with a lime wheel.

Rancho de Chimayo. 300 County Road 98, Chimayo. 505 351 4444. Both traditional and frozen margaritas are served; the bartenders use fresh lemon instead of lime, and triple sec instead of “coin” (or Cointreau). The frozen “blue” wins the people’s choice award, packs a wallop, and comes in a generous glass.

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- Michael French