That Frozen Concoction

Cube farmers in corporate America strive mightily for one thing and one thing only: a power title for their business cards.

A power title opens doors, you see. In a few short words it conveys far more information than DKNY, Cole-Haan, Lexus or Rolex combined. Hand over a card with "sales representative" or "Dish columnist," and you'll spend most of your life scoffed at by everyone from maître d's to discount shoe sales staff. Ah, but flip out a card bearing "consultant" or some such, and you command instant respect.

The Burning Question crew long ago gave up handing out business cards after quickly tiring of smirks and tables near the men's room. Besides, we have encountered only two titles of substance: bourbon ambassador and socialite. The former belongs to Fred Booker Noe, great-grandson of Jim Beam, who spends his days sipping mind-numbing concoctions and extolling the virtues of the hard stuff. (Yes, we have his business card and could phone him any time we wanted a few words of bourbonly advice.) The latter, well, we don't really know any socialites, although we did spend an afternoon with Mark Cuban once as he fondled the world's largest smokable cigar.

Our interest in the leisure class derives not from any fascination with extreme wealth, however, but from a curious bit of cocktail lore.

According to legend, a Dallas socialite invented the margarita back in 1948, during a drunken "let's mix whatever's in the cabinet and see who survives" party--hence our desire to achieve socialite status. Somehow, the story goes, Margarita Sames stumbled on the tart concoction, which, by virtue of her status as a socialite, spread throughout the nation's elite and then, like the benefits of a tax cut for the wealthy, trickled down to us commoners.

As we said, it's only a legend.

The original margarita consisted of three ingredients: tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice, served neat. It was a cocktail in the classic sense, a delicate balance of ingredients, no one flavor dominating the others. Nowadays, however, few establishments--notably Monica's and Z'Tejas--offer this version on their menus. Most serve a top-shelf version, often diluted with sweet and sour mix, plus a variety of frozen margaritas more akin to coladas than the original cocktail.

"Frozen margaritas," says Paul Rodriguez of Mia's, "that's where misimpressions start and the standards are lowered."

This week's Burning Question examines those lowered standards, the tendency for bar and restaurant patrons to veer away from traditional tastes, to bastardize a drink with distinct new flavors but maintain the original name. At least that's how we understood the question, "What's up with all the different margaritas?" when it arrived in our inbox. We also needed another excuse to drink, but because of our recent bourbon experience--thanks, Fred--we're currently unable to even look at brown liquors.

Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita in 1971, and his limeade Slurpee quickly became a favorite. In fact, Scott Aubuschon of Chuy's estimates that frozen cocktails make up 65 percent of all margaritas sold at the Knox-Henderson establishment. As Martinez's creation exploded in popularity, innovative bartenders began twisting the recipe, adding an array of unexpected flavors and colors. Uncle Julio's is famous for its much-copied swirl, which consists of multiple layers of frozen margarita and frozen sangria. "It's our most popular drink by far," claims one bartender. Blue Mesa's signature margarita is a colorful drink made with blue Curacao. A quick tour of Dallas-area bars and restaurants reveals margaritas made with Malibu rum, champagne, Midori, Chambord, peaches, mangos, bananas and even passion fruit. Frankie Jimenez, manager of Monica's, blames this trend on female patrons. "Women love sweet margaritas," he says, gesturing around the bar. "Here women are drinking strawberry margaritas."

"It's a continuing trend--adding extra liqueur like Midori," agrees Greg Hillan, general partner of Greenville Bar & Grill and one-time margarita specialist at Primo's. "Once you start doing that, I don't know if you can call it a margarita."

Ah, but they do. When the Burning Question crew staggered into Z'Tejas, we faced fruit-flavored margaritas galore: pear, mango, peach and so on. "The peach margarita is actually good," says Gloria, a bartender at the slick North Dallas establishment. "You'd think it's gross, but it's good." They also offer a guava and prickly-pear version that looks a lot like a beet sorbet, the kind of thing you'd expect to find while kicking back on a Moscow veranda, if there were verandas in Moscow. The frozen, the sweet, the fruity mixes dominate the margarita market these days. "People are developing an appetite for margaritas that aren't so tart," Rodriguez explains, almost apologetically.

One menu item, called the "big stick," features shots of Chambord, blue Curacao and Midori poured over the common lime margarita.

"It's an easy way to get the selling price up," Hillan says of these bastardized margaritas. "You can charge $6 instead of $4.75 just by adding something to it."

Cost indeed may drive a significant portion of this cocktail innovation. "Three years ago I paid a third for tequila of what I pay now," complains Matt Mortimer, regional manager of Blue Goose. "A lot of the good cheap tequila, they've quit making them in favor of high-end brands. I'm running 24 percent liquor costs for my number-one margarita."

Tequila is the spirit distilled from the spiny agave plant. By Mexican law--for whatever that's worth--tequila must contain at least 51 percent agave. Several years ago, however, an infection struck agave plants, knocking back production. At the same time, American consumers discovered high-end sipping tequilas. As a result, prices for tequila soared, and some establishments began experimenting with other neutral spirits, including vodka and Everclear.

"I've had an Absolut margarita, and it doesn't taste bad," Aubuschon says. "But you don't get that agave flavor."

So in answer to this week's Burning Question, we can only shrug. It seems curious that a trend toward sweeter margaritas with less kick coexists with an interest in single malt scotches, small batch...ooohhh...bourbons and high-end vodkas. But, as Aubuschon says, "People will try to come up with gimmick drinks all the time."

And as an alcohol consultant, he should know.


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