“Tequila,” wrote Charles H. Baker Jr. in his Around the World with Jigger, Beaker & Flask, “. . .is a spirit of definite merit. It is very potent, colorless also, and has a strange exotic flavor which—like Holland gin—is an acquired taste.”
These words, written in 1937, were among the first Americans ever heard of Mexico’s most famous spirit.
“There’s no such thing as a bad tequila experience,” as tequila educator Adam Stemmler is fond of saying, “there is only experience with bad tequila.”
This often comes as some news. Take any three people off the street, and at least one of them has had a night of tequila so punishing, and endured a hangover so lidless and savage, that they’ve sworn off tequila as one would the devil himself. It’s sad, in a way. I mean, people are going to like what they like, but forgoing all of tequila because of terrible night with a lousy mixto is almost exactly like saying “I don’t like wine” because of that time you drank a jug of Boone’s Farm Mango Grove.
Tequila—real, 100 percent agave tequila—has long ago asserted its rightful place among the pantheon of world-class spirits, and while it can be an intimate delight to sip neat all on its own, a well made tequila cocktail is the spirit’s evening gown, or bespoke suit. Among all the spirits, tequila has a unique complexity and depth right out of the still, born of the long maturity of the blue agave, a persistent and dynamic character against which other ingredients can play.
Whether it’s the snappy delight of a perfect Margarita or the indulgent bittersweet kiss of the Rosita, here are seven tequila cocktails with which to fall in love with Mexico’s most famous spirit—either for the first time, or all over again.
There is no better or more convincing a liquid cheerleader for tequila than a well-made Margarita. Those who’ve had one already agree. Those who haven’t—those for whom all they know is some $13 bottle of tequila mixed with day-glo “Margarita Mix,” with respect, you’ve not had a Margarita, you’ve had citric acid and sodium benzoate and high-fructose corn syrup cosplaying as a Margarita. A proper Margarita is exuberance in a glass, “the spirit of unfussy joie de vie,” we write, “that acknowledges the potential for fun in any situation.” The classic version is below, or learn how to make the extremely popular “Tommy’s Margarita” here.
- 2 oz. tequila
- 1 oz. lime juice
- 0.5 oz. Cointreau
- 0.25 oz. – 0.5 oz. agave syrup (to taste)
For both: Add ingredients to shaking tin, or blender, with lots of ice. Shake, or blend, until ice cold. Pour into a glass, garnish with a bright slice of lime, and indulge.
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
If tequila is your best friend, mezcal is your best friend’s dangerous cousin, the one who rides a motorcycle and smokes cigarettes. It wouldn’t hit American cocktails until 2007, when a bartender named Phil Ward at Death & Co. in NYC decided to smuggle mezcal into people’s glasses, flanked on all sides by the now-acceptable tequila. Ward’s original Oaxaca Old Fashioned was 3 parts tequila to one part mezcal—if you, too, are a little iffy on the smoky, muscular spirit, feel free to make it his way. If you already know and love mezcal (or smoky scotch) or are just in for a ride, make it as below, or check out the whole story here.
Grab a rocks glass the biggest piece of ice you have that will fit into it. If you don’t have large cubes, fill with the biggest ice you have. Add ingredients, stir briefly to integrate them together and garnish with a large grapefruit peel, expressing the oils over the top of the drink before adding the peel to the glass.
“Some things are so modest and unassuming,” we say of the Paloma, “the best way to understand their size is by measuring the shadow they cast.” We’re tempted to think of the Margarita as the star of the tequila show, but look above the title on the marquee, and you might be surprised, at least in Mexico, to find the Paloma—a simple drink of tequila, lime juice, grapefruit soda, and a pinch of salt. Palomas are sweet and tart and bright and preternaturally refreshing, a worthy match for the pitiless heat of the Mexican summer, and deployed in great numbers whenever a little reprieve is in order. The classic version is below, or you can find out about the freshly squeezed variation here.
- 2 oz. blanco tequila
- 0.5 oz. lime juice
- 4 to 5 oz. grapefruit soda
Add ice to a tall glass. Add tequila and lime and top with grapefruit soda. Mix the ingredients around with a straw (or, as they do at La Capilla de Don Javier in the town of Tequila, with a large knife), sprinkle a pinch of salt on top and garnish with a lime wedge or honestly nothing at all.
With a name like “El Diablo” (“the Devil” in Spanish) you might not expect a fruity and charming tequila sipper, but since “Trader” Vic Bergeron invented it in 1946, the El Diablo has been enchanting drinkers with its tart berries and gentle spice. It’s a simple tequila version of a Moscow Mule, essentially, with a bit of the fruit liqueur creme de cassis making it juicy and the oaky richness of the aged tequila making it plush. Find out why a tiki guy was one of the first Americans to mess with tequila cocktails here.
- 2 oz. Reposado Tequila
- 0.5 oz.–0.75 oz. Lime Juice, to taste
- 0.5 oz. Creme de Cassis
- 3-4 oz. Ginger Beer, to taste
Combine all ingredients over ice in a tall glass. Stir briefly to combine, and garnish with a couple blackberries on a pick, or a lime wedge, or both.
The El Guapo is an advertisement for innovation. Most of the time, you have a crazy new idea and try it and it’s terrible. Sometimes, though, it ends up like this: Take the same hot sauce you’d use on your burrito and put a bunch of it into the shaker tin with your Margarita, and the result, perhaps surprisingly, is among the most delicious and celebrated spicy cocktails of the last 20 years. This cocktail, created in 2008 by Sam Ross at NYC’s Little Branch, also throws in some salt and pepper, because why not? Make his original, below, or try out an even more refreshing variation here.
- 2 oz. tequila or mezcal
- Half a lime, quartered
- 3-4 cucumber slices
- 0.75 oz. simple syrup
- 3-5 dashes (about 0.25 oz.) hot sauce
Add lime pieces to shaker tin and muddle to get as much juice out as possible. At the rest of the ingredients, shake hard for 5 to 6 seconds and dump the whole thing, ice and all, into a large rocks glass. Taste for balance and add more lime juice as necessary. Garnish with a sprinkle of salt and a good crack of black pepper.
This cocktail is what would happen if you just started listing everything that goes best with tequila, and combined the top three or four in one drink just to see if life really is that easy. For starters, lime, obviously. Then grapefruit as well, a legendary combination that appears several times on this very list. And then there’s hops by way of an IPA, a duo so perfect they don’t even really need the others (but it’s nice to have friends). Add Campari to punch up the IPA’s juicy bitterness, and you’ll have a beer cocktail you won’t want to put down. Find the recipe below, and full background and instructions here.
- 1.5 oz. blanco tequila
- 0.5 oz. lime juice
- 0.5 oz. Campari
- 0.5 oz. simple syrup
- Top with about 3 oz. IPA
Add all ingredients except for beer into a shaker tin and shake on ice for 6 to 8 seconds. Strain into a tall glass and top with about 3 oz. IPA. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.
Most tequila recipes are bright and refreshing, leaning on the spirit’s inherent affinity for sunshine. The Rosita is the other kind. It’s a world away for Margaritas, another affair entirely—a cocktail bitter and sweet, darker and more complex. It was modernized and popularlized (twice!) by none other than early cocktail revivalist and notorious eccentric Gary “gaz” Regan. Check out the recipe below, or find out how the Rosita was found and forgotten and found again here.
- 1.5 oz. reposado tequila
- 0.5 oz. Campari
- 0.5 oz. sweet vermouth
- 0.5 oz. dry vermouth
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice. Stir for five to 10 seconds (if using very small ice) to 25 to 30 seconds (if using very large ice), strain either into a rocks glass over fresh ice or up, in a coupe, depending on your preference. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.