(We originally wrote this for MSN City Guides more than 8 years ago, but think it still holds up well. And the Tommy's still holds up as our favorite Margarita. Happy National Tequila Day!)
The Margarita is arguably America's favorite cocktail. While the martini is legendary, the Margarita's refreshing sour and sweet taste makes it accessible to novice and occasional drinkers, while it also packs enough tequila punch to feature in the blender of many a wild party.
But the drink has also been a victim of its popularity. An effort to market the drink to every taste has led to an endless list of flavors you'll never find in nature (blue raspberry) and the demand for frozen Margaritas means it is just as likely that your drink will be mixed by a Slurpee machine as a bartender.
But, like many other cocktails, demand for a well-made, classic Margarita is growing. Even more heartening, the drink is evolving for the better. And those looking for the origin of that evolution don't need to book ticket to Mexico. They should head to San Francisco.
Tequila by the Bay - The Real San Francisco Treat
About 500 miles north of the Mexico border lies what many consider to be the temple of tequila, Tommy's Mexican Restaurant. The restaurant opened in San Francisco in 1965 by Tommy and Elmy Bermejo and for more than a decade their son Julio has been an evangelist for premium tequila (the bar boasts the biggest collection of 100% agave tequila outside Mexico).
And the Tommy's Margarita -- a slight twist on the original that replaces the orange liqueur with a natural sweetener -- is gaining popularity across the country and even internationally.
And San Francisco bolstered its tequila credentials with the opening of Tres Agaves, also dedicated to popularizing the well-made Margarita.
Why a Tommy's?
What makes a Tommy's Margarita superior? Let's start with the garnish. Salt can soak up the fat from your fries, but doesn't belong on the rim of the glass. It's hard to shake off the pure salt taste with even a few gulps of the drink and it doesn't complement tequila at all. Even if the bar uses kosher salt, which has a milder taste, it's an unnecessary distraction to the taste of the spirit.
Getting past the rim to what's in the glass, the Tommy's simply tastes like it should be one of the world's best cocktails. Chances are you've already had loads of sub-par or even terrible Margaritas. A Tommy's will be measured and mixed properly, have fresh ingredients and excellent tequila.
But even if you're used to premium Margaritas, we think the Tommy's surpasses any variation, whether it uses Cointreau, Grand Marnier or any top-shelf name brand. The Tommy's Margaritas we've sampled have been consistently good, with a smoothness that lets you taste the tequila terroir.
We think even the best orange liqueur can have an almost artificial aftertaste, and as it is the only sweet element of a typical Margarita it is often overused, overwhelming the drink by trying to combat the sourness of fresh limes.
Agave syrup solves those problems, offering sweetness that naturally matches the 100 percent agave tequila.
Agave syrup is the sweetness that balances the lime. Known as honey water in Mexico, it's made from the same part of the blue agave plant that is used to make tequila, and is nearly twice as sweet as honey.
Some of the brand-name tequilas, like Partida, are marketing their own syrup. Agave syrup is mainly fructose which gives it the highest Sweetness Intensity Profile of any sugar or sweetener you can find.
Agave syrup is a natural sweetener; it's better for you than processed sugar which is harder to break down in your body. The Tommy's Margarita is the taste equivalent of a high dive. The elegant taste of the agave syrup peaks first and then you plunge into the tequila.
Of course, the heart of any Margarita is the tequila. A Tommy's requires 100% blue agave tequila --which means saying goodbye to Cuervo Gold -- but the rules end there. Tasting tequila can be as much of an art as tasting any other spirit, but finding what suits your palate, especially with a knowledgeable guide, is a great journey.
Agave tequila has four styles: blanco or silver, which is not aged; reposado, aged in oak for two to 12 months; anejo, aged in oak barrels for one to three years; extra anejo, aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
Tommy's Restaurant uses Herradura Silver as its house tequila, and that's a good benchmark to start tasting other tequilas against. If you're used to ordering Patron by name, try the Herradura blind taste test and you may just start looking for more challenging tequilas. And since excellent tequila has yet to go mainstream, a lot of great brands are also great value.
For our part, one of us prefers reposados -- to sip and with drinks -- for the bite, while the other likes the smoky, whiskey-like flavors of the anejo. Our favorite brand for Tommy's at the moment is Orendain Ollitas.
Is the Margarita English?
The story of the Margarita is like the story of the cocktail: no-one really knows who invented it, where, or when. Although there is no recipe, there are references to a ubiquitous drink called the Tequila Daisy in local newspapers in the 1930s. It's mentioned in The Weekly Kansas City Star, The Syracuse Herald, and the Albuquerque Journal.
The earliest recipe for a cocktail made of tequila, Cointreau and lime served up in a cocktail glass is the Picador in 1937. It is one of two Margarita-like recipes listed in the cocktail book of the Cafe Royal in London, England. But, all the other Tales of the Margarita suggest that it was created in Mexico in the 30s or 40s.
After a brief stint with an atlas trying to crack the Margarita Code revealed no geographical reason (mapping claims, dates and locations) why any of these stories should be true, we opted for our favorite myth. The Margarita was invented by a bartender in the Foreign Club in Tijuana who was inspired by the performances of a young Rita Hayworth and her family who were flamingo dancers. Guess what Rita is short for.
We're also partial to the idea that this classic hot-weather drink began its days in rainy London. W.J. Tarling, the author of the Café Royal Cocktail Book and the first president of the International Bartenders Association, also offers a tasty variation called the Toreador.
Even if Tarling just printed a recipe well-known at the time, it's good to know London is living up to its Margarita pedigree. Thanks to a few tequila lovers, some of the best Margaritas west of San Francisco can be found there. If you're around that way then we recommend Green & Red (now closed) in Bethnal Green and La Perla in Covent Garden.
If you'd like a taste of the spirit of Red and Green, then buy the book recommended to us by one of the bartender, Margarita Rocks.