The margarita is quite possibly the world’s most popular cocktail. Sure, that’s an impossible statement to prove, but regardless of whether it truly holds the title, the margarita is beloved for good reason. When well made, it’s refreshing, delicious, and easy to batch or personalize. The traditional recipe features just three basic ingredients — tequila, orange liqueur, and lime juice — making it a simple, yet sublime drink. Of course, despite its straightforward formula, the drink is often botched. But even when they are bad, margaritas are still kind of good.
“The margarita’s relatively simple recipe lends itself incredibly well to being spruced up in seemingly countless ways,” says Justin Lavenue, co-owner and co-operator of The Roosevelt Room in Austin, Texas.
Of course, quality ingredients are key, but if you really want to kick your margarita recipe up a notch, give it some spice. Heat helps add depth and some contrast to the drink’s inherent sweetness, which is often a bit cloying. And, just as there are roughly a million ways to craft a margarita, there are just as many methods to kick up the heat.
You could substitute the traditional Cointreau or triple-sec with the crowd-pleasing Ancho Reyes liqueur (green or red depending on the mood.) For the more ambitious, try infusing your own tequila with some fresh peppers. Those looking for an easier hack can coat the lip of the glass not just in salt but in a healthy portion of spicy Tajín.
Beyond applying a simple spice to the rim, Lavenue suggests adding a few drops of chili oil or a teaspoon of Salsa Macha and then dry shake the cocktail before adding ice. “Dry shaking at room temperature will allow the cocktail to pick up more of the flavors of the oil, since some of it will infuse into the alcohol.” To boot Lavenue says the leftover oil floats on the surface after it’s been strained into the glass. That adds “an enticing aromatic garnish, a vibrant appearance and a silky texture on the tongue.”
For those who crave a bit of heat in their drink, we queried a few bartenders to see how they add some fire to their margaritas. Hopefully, their recipes make your mouth water or, better still, spark your imagination to create something new and unique.
1. El Camino
While making your own infused tequila isn’t complicated, it does take time. Thankfully for those who want some heat in their drink in the short term, you can find a spicy tequila on the shelf of your local liquor store. “The El Camino is an easy shortcut to a spicy margarita,” says Johnny Swet, founding partner and master mixologist at JIMMY Rooftop Bar at Modernhaus Soho in New York City. “Tanteo Habanero Tequila bringing the spice, balanced by Milagro Tequila.” To kick up the drink (pictured above) a bit further Swet recommends a spicy accouterment: A charred habanero garnish, which “ups the ante for those who like it hot.”
1 oz Milagro Tequila 1.5 oz Tanteo Habanero Tequila .75 oz Lime Juice .75 oz Agave
Ice-shake to temperature and strain into a rocks glass filled with cubed ice. Garnish with a lime wheel and a Tajín salt-charred habanero (either fired over a flame or blistered in a cast iron pan.)
2. The Spiced Up Margarita
Not all spicy heat is derived from peppers. Just ask any of the millions who enjoy shots of Fireball Whiskey. For fans of that ‘cinnamon burn’ Deke Dunne, Master Mixologist at Allegory DC, has a recipe to tickle the taste buds. “One of my favorite flavor pairings is tequila, cinnamon, and pineapple,” Dunne says. He combines all three to create his ‘Spiced Up Margarita.’ “Blanco tequila inherently pairs beautifully with pineapple and both those flavors pair wonderfully with the deep, rich spices from cinnamon,” he says. “It’s easy to make it home and it’s crazy delicious.”
2 oz Altos Olmeca Blanco Tequila .75 Fresh lime juice .75 Pineapple juice .50 Spiced cinnamon syrup
Add ingredients to a shaker, add ice, and shake for 5-7 seconds. Strain the cocktail into a rocks glass with fresh ice and garnish with a slice of pineapple.
For the spiced cinnamon syrup: Combine one part sugar and one part water in a pan and bring it to a simmer. Stir the mixture until the sugar has dissolved. Add a couple of sticks of cinnamon and a couple of diced-up jalapeños to the pan, cover it, and let it sit on medium-low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. The longer you let it sit, the more the flavors from the cinnamon and jalapeño will really shine through. Strain off the chunks of cinnamon and jalapeño and store your syrup in the fridge for up to 3 to 4 weeks.
3. The Calabrian Margarita
This recipe is a quasi-fusion of a margarita and another great summer sipper, the tequila negroni, plus a simple, spicy rim. “Although Brother Wolf is an Italian Aperitivo bar, we occasionally have guests who come in searching for something more familiar, like a spicy margarita,” says Jessica King of Brother Wolf in Knoxville, Tennessee. King puts an Italian twist on the drink. The Aperol adds a touch of bitterness that plays against the sweetness of the OJ, while the Calabrian chili powder adds just enough heat to make the drink a little bit dangerous.
2 oz Corralejo Reposado Tequila 1 oz Aperol 1.5 oz Fresh Lime juice .5 oz Fresh Orange JuiceSpicewalla Calabrian Chili Powder
Coat a single spot of the rim of a tall glass with fresh lime juice, then dip in or sprinkle on the Calabrian chili powder.
Combine all ingredients, including a pinch of the chili powder, in a mixing tin with ice. Shake vigorously and pour contents into the rimmed glass.
4. Cucumber Jalapeno Margarita
Spice from fresh peppers is delicious but the heat can become overwhelming. Balance, then, is crucial. After all, you want to be able to finish the drink and still be able to taste things afterward. In this spicy margarita from Eufemio Vega, mixologist at Quivira Steakhouse, Pueblo Bonito Resorts in Los Cabos, Mexico, a few crisp, herbaceous notes play foil to the peppery fire. “The cucumber and basil smooth out the heat and this thirst quencher goes down very smooth,” he says. “It’s best to make sure it’s well shaken to release the heat of the jalapeños and then drink it very cold.”
1.5 oz. Blanco tequila 1.5 oz. Agave honey Cucumber .25 grams Basil .25 grams Lemon juice 1 oz. Pineapple juice .5 oz. Jalapeno .10 grams Tajin .02 grams
Cut a slice of lemon, run the wedge on one side of the rim of the glass. Put Tajín on a plate and pass the glass over it. Add the basil leaves, the seedless cucumber pieces, lemon and pineapple juice, agave syrup, and a small piece of jalapeño pepper to a cocktail shaker. Macerate for 30 seconds.
Pour the blanco tequila and ice into the shaker and shake it for 10 seconds. If you have a cocktail shaker, shake it until icy cold on the outside.
Place a few ice cubes in the serving glass; strain the margarita over the ice. Garnish with a cucumber slice.