I’ve drunk a lot of bad cocktails in my life. You know the type: watery, sugary, and reeking of cheap booze. In hindsight, I have no one to blame but myself; I rarely thought about what went into making a good cocktail, and I was too scared to try anything that didn’t have rum in it.
Then I met my husband, who turned out to be really into spirits. Like REALLY. I didn’t even use the word “spirits” before meeting him. He introduced me to different varieties of bourbon, rye, and whiskey, and I was immediately hooked. It turns out that I wasn’t destined to have bad drinks for eternity.
Life is too short to have bad cocktails, so I’ve prepared this simple guide in the hope that it will put you on the fast track to drinking better. If you keep reading, you will also find the recipe for my favorite margarita at the end of this post.
Step out of your comfort zone. We all have a favorite spirit; mine is rum. However, when you drink the same thing over and over again, it’s easy to convince yourself that that’s all you like. You miss out on the chance to try out different flavor combinations, which is key when it comes to learning what makes a balanced drink. For instance, I know that I’m not a huge fan of gin, but I still order gin cocktails every now and again just to see if it has grown on me. This has had the added benefit of giving me clues as to which flavors go well with gin for me. Most of the time, it is not just about the main spirit, but also about what the supporting ingredients add to a drink.
Get to know your bartender. If you are a naturally shy and awkward person like me, this might sound like your worst nightmare. Bartenders are, after all, some of the coolest people around and, therefore, super intimidating to talk to. What I’ve discovered, however, is that they are also booze nerds. They love to talk to people about their craft and about how to make a good cocktail. A good way to break the ice if you are shy is to sit at the bar and ask for a drink recommendation. If the bartender is any good, they will usually ask what spirits and flavor profiles you like. This is usually enough to keep the conversation going. Extra tip: always be mindful of how busy the bar staff are; a busy bartender doesn’t really have time to stop by and chat with you and will probably resent rather than enjoy the interaction.
Keep it simple at first: go for the classics. Rather than going all-out and spending $20 on that cocktail with the fig elixir and whiskey from the Himalayas, start by trying out classic cocktails until you get a feel for how they should taste like. When I started to make an effort to drink better, I became obsessed with the Old Fashioned, a simple bourbon or rye drink that’s actually incredibly difficult to get just right. Now I use it as my gauge when I want to determine if a cocktail bar is good or not. Classic cocktails also have the added advantage of being reasonably priced and available at most cocktail bars.
Which leads me to… one of those classic cocktails that it’s almost never done right: the margarita.
Now, listen. I’m not a margarita snob. I will happily drink the occasional frozen-strawberry-kiwi-rosé margarita. The problem is that I also really, really like tequila. Especially if it’s good tequila, I want to taste it in my drink. That’s why a classic margarita is hard to beat: you should taste both the lime juice and the tequila without one overpowering the other. For my version, I’ve applied tip #2 and, in this case, watched the bartenders at my favorite cocktail bar, Etsi Bravo, like a hawk. That’s right; I didn’t even ask them any questions; I just stared whenever they made me an Espolón margarita and tried to learn all of their secrets. Mine is still not as good as theirs, but it’s close.
You can make this margarita with any kind of good-quality tequila that you like, but I strongly recommend that you try the Espolón reposado. Margaritas are usually made with silver tequila, which is younger (usually not aged at all) and therefore more stringent. Reposado tequilas, on the other hand, have been aged for at least two months in oak barrels. This aging process gives them a pale golden color and, more importantly, a subtler, smoother taste. I’ve had a lot of reposados, but Espolón is my favorite when it comes to making margaritas, probably because it has a slight sweetness that eliminates the need for simple syrup.
To better cocktails! Salud!
This delicious margarita is easy to make and perfect for entertaining.
- 1 tablespoon of kosher salt (optional)
- 1 teaspoon ancho chili powder (optional)
- Juice of half a lime to salt the rim (optional)
- 4 oz Espolón reposado tequila (or your favorite tequila)
- 2 oz Cointreau
- 1.5 oz fresh lime juice (2 limes)
- Half a lime cut into quarters or slices to garnish
- Step 1 For the salted rim (optional): combine the salt and ancho chili powder in a small bowl. Pour onto a small plate and set aside. Pour the juice from half a lime into a shallow dish and carefully dip the edge of your cocktail glass in it. Then, roll the edge of the glass in the ancho chili salt. Feel free to use a paper towel to tidy up the edges.
- Step 2 Fill your cocktail glass about halfway up with ice. Fill a cocktail shaker about halfway up with ice. Pour all the ingredients for the margarita except for the lime quarters or slices into the shaker and shake vigorously for about 15 seconds. Strain the margarita mixture into the cocktail glass with the salt rim. Garnish with a lime quarter or slice.