How to make the perfect margarita

Sarah McInerney
With a salt rim ... A Tommy's Margarita.
With a salt rim ... A Tommy's Margarita. 

The margarita is the drink of holidays and sunshine.  A balancing act of sweet and sour with the smooth kick of tequila.

It is also surprisingly easy to make, even without a cocktail shaker.

Bar owner Sven Almenning says the key to a really good margarita is buying a quality tequila. It’s a spirit that can conjure memories of bad university cocktail parties and even worse hangovers, but he believes it has unfairly become the "fall guy" for a night of excess.  

"I recommend you use a good quality 100 per cent agave tequila, so not the nasty stuff you might have had in college," he says. 

"This is a beautiful, beautiful refined spirit."

"Always measure out your spirits when you’re making cocktails. It’s like a food recipe, if you get it exact it’s bound to taste good and it also helps you control how much alcohol you’re having."

Almenning’s bar Eau-de-Vie won the award for best new cocktail bar at the 2011 Spirited industry awards held in New Orleans. His is the kind of place that takes cocktails very seriously – safety goggles and beakers sit alongside vintage glasses and copper tankards. Not to mention a sabre sword for opening bottles of champagne.

There’s a banana flavoured margarita on the menu, but for the home, Almenning recommends the Tommy’s Margarita. This was created by Julio Bermejo in the 1980s and served in his father Tommy’s Mexican restaurant and bar in San Francisco.

"It’s become the bartender’s favourite, if you like, in terms of the margaritas," Almenning says.


Often margarita recipes call for two spirits – tequila and either Cointreau or Triple Sec for a touch of sweetness – but this version uses agave syrup, which is made from the same plant as tequila. It’s a low GI sweetener that can be found in health food shops and some supermarkets.

"All we’re doing is taking out the alcohol and replacing it with agave syrup which makes it a lot cheaper to make," he says.

A blend of tequila, fresh lime juice and agave syrup, it is served on the rocks, rather than blended with the ice into a slushy. Fresh limes and good quality ice that won't melt too quickly (ie. not from a petrol station) are essential. A fancy shaker and a Hawthorne strainer are not – just use a jar or plastic container, anything that seals, and a tea strainer instead. 

"Don’t make margaritas if you can’t get limes," he says.

"If limes are really expensive you can split it with lime and lemon if you like, but ideally get 100 per cent fresh lime juice."

The recipe
45 ml Tequila, preferably 100 per cent agave
30 ml lime juice, freshly squeezed
15 ml agave syrup, cut with water

Put fresh ice into a cocktail shaker or whatever vessel you have access to. Add the tequila and lime juice.

In a separate container blend the agave syrup with an equal amount of water. Shake or whisk this up until it has combined and take 15 ml from this and add it to the shaker.

Secure the lid so no liquid can escape and shake vigorously – this blends the ingredients, aerates it and waters it down slightly.  Strain it into an ice filled glass (leaving the ice in the shaker behind) and enjoy!

Note:  This recipe works roughly on a 3:2:1 ratio, so you can change the quantities using whatever measuring spoons or cups you have available if you’re making multiple drinks.

The salt rim
The Tommy’s Margarita doesn’t call for a rim of salt but Almenning is a fan. He suggests salting only half the rim so you get both experiences. Rub this with a lime segment and roll it in the salt.  He prefers Murray River pink salt.

As for the glass, Almenning prefers a tumbler-style vessel as the martini glass or champagne coupe often favoured for cocktails is too small for the ice and liquid.

Seasonal signatures
Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe why not have some fun with flavour?  A dash of roasted red capsicum is one of Almenning’s favourite twists on the margarita. 

"It’s the same recipe but before you add in anything you take capsicum roasted on the stove, chuck it in, muddle it up and then add all the other ingredients," he says.

Alternatively, he suggests the following:

  • Play with different kinds of citrus. For example, add in some blood orange juice as well as lime but cut down the lime a tiny bit.
  • Use different kinds of salts around the rim
  • For a smoky margarita add a dash of mescal (which is also made from an agave plant) - 30ml tequila, 15ml mescal.

Source: This article was originally published as a Tried & Tasted blog entry on September 2, 2011.