Josh Prewitt of award-winning modern Mexican restaurant La Condesa in Austin, Texas, offers high-proof tips to impress on National Margarita Day
Austin, Texas, is known for SXSW, Lone Star hipster culture, barbecue, and its Tex-Mex staples. Of course, there is more to the Capital City than breakfast tacos and queso. There are plenty of great eats across Austin, including gourmet Mexican. La Condesa, which this month celebrates its 10th anniversary, is among the restaurants offering the cuisine. But what’s Mexican food, however elegant, without margaritas?
La Condesa’s margarita skews traditional with touches of refinement. The recipe, included below, shows an expert hand at the classic cocktail. La Condesa mixologist Josh Prewitt can help you develop that expertise ahead of this year’s National Margarita Day, Friday, February 22, with these five tips.
Know the History of the Cocktail and its Base Spirits
Learn the history of the margarita, of tequila, and of mezcal. Part of what makes any cocktail or dining experience unforgettable is a great story, and you can add value to any experience with knowledge and anecdotes. Learning about tequila production provides great context and understanding of how the industrialization of agave distillation has affected the quality of modern-day products. In recent years there has been a strong push-back against the use of “diffusers” which many contend “strip the soul from the plant,” removing key characteristics of intrinsic agave flavors.
Use a Still-Strength or High-Proof Tequila
Of course you want to use only 100 percent agave tequila in your recipe. You’re starting with a great quality spirit, so how do you improve? Use a “still-strength” or “high-proof” tequila — these are typically blanco tequilas bottled at 45 percent alcohol and higher and not diluted to a lower proof with water. Fortunately, there are many producers currently making these available and several can be found at any quality liquor store. (If you need examples, check out Siembra Valles High Proof, Tapatio 110, Tequila Arette 101, and Fortaleza Still Strength). Why will using a high-proof tequila make your cocktail better? You can taste the agave. All cocktails are diluted, so if you think about it, using an 80 proof tequila means its already been diluted once. Do you really want to dilute it a second time and mask the all of the sweet, cooked agave flavor?
If You Are Going to Use a Tequila, Use a Blanco Tequila
It is best to use a blanco tequila in your cocktail — those are the truest representations of agave. Blanco tequilas are complex spirits, produced from a plant that takes a minimum of seven years to mature and accumulate enough sugar to be harvested, roasted, fermented, and distilled into a sweet spirit, true to its origin. When you age agave in oak it will hide the nuance of the spirit, overtaking those finer characteristics. Because you are adding this to a cocktail, you will automatically be masking some of that character, so start with the purest expression. Additionally, with a blanco tequila you can rest assured that there are no additives such as glycerin, oak extract, or caramel coloring.
Tinker With the Base Spirit
As people become agave enthusiasts, they learn that tequila is mezcal, but mezcal is not tequila, so use a quality mezcal in your cocktail to add another layer of flavor. I encourage guests to use mezcal products intended for consumption in cocktails, which most often means espadín or Weber blue agave productions from Oaxaca and Zacatecas — not wild harvested agaves that often take 10 – 20-plus years to mature. When you use a tepextate, madrecuixe, sierra negra, etc., in your cocktail, is it disrespectful to the plant and the people who produce the spirit to hide forever the character and nuance in a cocktail. Another great alternative would be to use the agave relative sotol in your cocktail.
Upgrade Your Salt Game
The classic recipe is great, so how can you improve while still keeping it classic? Upgrade your salt game! At La Condesa we use a recipe that incorporates dehydrated nopales (cactus) and lemongrass added to salt and sugar in a spice grinder. This creates another layer of flavor, while also maintaining balance. If you choose to make a mezcal margarita, try using sal de gusano in lieu of traditional salt. Sal de gusano is a blend of ground maguey worms, chiles, and salt that pairs well with mezcal. It can be easily found on Amazon. Mercí Mercado is our preferred source.
La Classica Margarita
2 ounces classic margarita mix (recipe follows)
1½ ounces blanco tequila
¾ ounce Patrón Citrónge (or comparable orange liqueur)
Cactus salt (optional)
Lime wheel, for garnish
Pour ingredients into cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and pour unstrained into salt-rimmed glass. Garnish with lime wheel floating atop the finished beverage
Agave (equal parts agave and water)
Lime juice (equal to combined parts agave and water)
Combine and blend.
30 grams dried cactus paddle
20 grams dried lemongrass
100 grams kosher salt
70 grams sugar
Dehydrate cactus paddle and lemongrass. Blitz in spice grinder with salt and sugar or hand grind in a molcajete.
For more information on La Condesa or to make reservations, visit the restaurant’s website.
Photography (lead image and slideshow): Jody Horton/Courtesy La Condesa
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