Margarita Time 

The secret to a great one? Don’t skimp on the ingredients.

This week officially marks the beginning of summer, although, truth be told, it feels like we're already a few months into the sultry weather season. The only upside to the uptick on the thermometer is that I can beat the heat with an ice-cold margarita.

It's not that I don't like to dally with daiquiris or that I never perk up with a piña colada, but I'm my father's daughter, which means that margaritas are my jam. I like to drink them frozen, although my enthusiasm for the drink frequently leads to a massive "ice cream" headache, and I like to drink them on the rocks. I'll mix them with the mid-priced José Cuervo, and I'll mix them with Patron when I'm feeling rich, or Sauza when my pockets are bare.

Lately, my kitchen margaritas — best served after a soccer game, yard work, or just a hot day spent outdoors — are whipped up very simply: a jigger of my latest favorite, el Jimador tequila, in a shaker, along with four ounces of Jim O'Brien's Crazy Rita margarita mix, ice, and a slice of lime. I shake it up, then strain the mix into an ice-filled old fashioned glass rimmed with lime juice and kosher salt. Honestly, I don't even bother with triple sec, although I have a bottle languishing on my dining room bar cart just a few yards away.

click to enlarge ELENA ELISSEEVA | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Elena Elisseeva | Dreamstime.com

Double-distilled and made with 100 percent agave, there's a crispness to el Jimador, which comes from the western Mexican state of Jalisco, that I prefer to other tequilas. And O'Brien's Crazy Rita — which I first tried during a pop-up liquor store tasting hosted by O'Brien himself — is not too tart, not too sweet. Unlike some margarita mixes, it's made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Calorie-wise, it comes in at 80 per cocktail, which is better than most mixers. Plus, O'Brien is a Memphian, a chef who turned lemons into, well, adult beverages by parlaying a burgeoning business selling seasonings and sauces at area farmers markets into a booming business by selling his wares at grocery and liquor stores. And trust me — it feels good to drink local.

Speaking of drinking local — Las Delicias gets my vote for best in town due to the fresh-squeezed lime juice that's used in the recipe. I also like the frozen margaritas at Las Playita Mexicana out in Bartlett. The seven varieties of margaritas on the menu at Babalu in Overton Square might sound blasphemous to traditionalists, but the quality ingredients make up for the sass. I recommend the Tamarind Margarita, which combines Cazadores tequila, orange juice, the house sour mix (which is fresh-squeezed), and tamarind extract to make a heady, thirst-quenching quaff. The Champarita, a mix of sparkling wine, agave nectar, triple sec, and sour mix, tastes just as it sounds, like a lighter margarita or a margarita-mimosa blend.

Many restaurants go wrong by using cheap tequila, hoping that the sour mix masks the taste. Or they use a sour mix laden with low-quality ingredients — corn syrup, shelf-stable lime juice, preservatives, and artificial additives — hoping that the tequila ratio might help drinkers overlook the wretchedness of the drink. Frozen margarita machines can get gunky and moldy if they're not cleaned frequently. And, when it comes to a margarita on the rocks, drinks must be shaken, not stirred, to aerate the ingredients properly.

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