Margarita Mix

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In his classic book Into the Valley, John Hershey describes the fear that sweeps over a group of soldiers caught in an ambush. With the actions of men teetering between stunned confusion and outright panic comes the crucial moment between victory and defeat. All it takes, the author points out, is one strong man to step into that moment, to lead, to provide direction, to save the day.

In these uncertain times the Burning Question crew intends to be that one strong man. Well, group of men...and women. Damn it, we intend to be that one strong group of men and women who, steadfast in a storm of uncertainty, stern in our defiance of untruth and all things un-American, stand as examples to others. It's a noble thing, really, to disdain comfort and safety that others might advance into broad, sunlit uplands (we plagiarized that last bit from Winston Churchill), and as the president has asked Americans to volunteer in that endeavor, we do so here today.

We figured we'd start with margaritas.

Few drinks generate as much confusion as margaritas. One cannot order without issuing several qualifying statements, from frozen or rocks to salt or no salt to the type of tequila splashed into the mix. Bars and restaurants serve them in a bewildering assortment of glassware, although rarely in a margarita glass. Even ordering a top-shelf version fails to quell the confusion. Depending on the establishment and the bartender, top shelf may be green or tinged in orange, drenched in Cointreau or Grand Marnier, shaken at the bar or poured out of a plastic jug. And the taste, beyond the choice of tequila, may differ dramatically. So, this week's Burning Question, our first as representative Americans dedicated to government of the people and so forth, provides direction and leadership by answering that most puzzling of questions: What is top shelf?

The original version of the margarita features only three ingredients: tequila, Cointreau and lime juice. It's tart, to be sure, but it fits the definition of a cocktail--a delicate balance of three or more flavors with no single taste dominating the mix. "You want to taste the tequila, the Cointreau, the lime," explains Victor Calvillo, bartender at Javier's. "You want to taste all the flavors."

Unfortunately top-shelf margaritas today deviate, sometimes dramatically, from the original. They generally contain a premium tequila and a premium orange liqueur, of course. But top-shelf concoctions in Dallas-area bars nowadays add cheaper mixes or sweet and sour combinations that drown out the tartness of lime and the dry-sweet blend of agave and orange. "A lot of bars don't like to deal with fresh lime juice," says Allen Roach, bartender at The Mansion. "They have to pay someone to juice the limes and so on. It's cheaper for them to go with sweet and sour." But, he adds, "It is gross stuff. I don't like it at all." Yet most bars splash at least a dash of sweet and sour--usually bar syrup with a lemon-lime flavoring--into their margaritas. Javier's uses a powdered mix. Margarita Ranch and Chuy's prepare their own out of sugar water and juice.

The popularity of the margarita explains the use of sweet and sour, according to Frankie Jimenez, general manager of Monica's. "Some people like sweet, some like tart," he points out. "If you don't use the right measurements, if you use too much lime, it'll be too tart, and most people like them sweeter." The sweet and sour mix eliminates the precision necessary for a well-made cocktail and sweetens the drink for a broader audience.

Popularity also affects the manner in which bartenders create and pour the cocktail. Bars serve so many margaritas on busy evenings--Monica's, for example, drains 35 to 50 gallons of tequila on a typical weekend night--that many premix their top-shelf version. It's disturbing to order a premium cocktail and watch the bartender splash it from a jug or spray it from a machine, but it's also quite common. "The machines look bad, but they're doing a good job," claims Brandon Marzanec of La Hacienda Ranch in Carrollton. But others disagree. "Some bartenders want to be a little lazy and pour from a premade mix when they're busy," Calvillo points out. "But when I make it myself, that's the way it's supposed to be made."

Let's face it. You can drink canned stuff at home. When you shell out $7 or more for a drink, someone should work at it. Besides, you never know how much alcohol a bar actually adds to premixed margaritas. "A lot of people lie to you when they say they are top shelf," acknowledges Amos Garcia at Margarita Ranch.

Grant Sampeck at Chuy's points out that while his restaurant premixes its house margarita, it prepares top shelf by hand. "The majority of people order the house margarita because I don't think a lot of people know margaritas," he says. "In a lot of places, I won't order house margaritas." A few places also ruin top-shelf margaritas by adding a touch of orange juice, which obscures the lime's sharpness and the tequila's dry sting. "A lot of people like margaritas with OJ," says Mike Hulyo of Blue Mesa in Addison. "But I think it defeats the purpose of the margarita. It's for people who want to be cool and hold a margarita but don't actually like the taste."

Ultimately, a top-shelf margarita consists of a good tequila, Cointreau or Grand Marnier (after about six drinks, the Burning Question crew no longer considered this important) and fresh lime juice. It should be served either on the rocks or neat. Monica's prepares an excellent example, which it calls a "Frankie's Margarita." Other bars offer reasonable facsimiles, often marred by sweet and sour, but otherwise palatable: Star Canyon, Chuy's, Javier's, Blue Mesa and The Mansion. At least we think it was The Mansion; after downing so many drinks we can't be certain, but we vaguely recall some guy in a tux yelling, "You'll never be welcome again at The Mansion."

Economically, anyway, it makes no sense to order anything but a top-shelf margarita. The margin on the regular version, featuring cheaper alcohol in smaller amounts, favors the bar. Top shelf requires better ingredients and a larger pour, for only a slight increase in cost to the consumer. At least, that's how we explained it to our editors when we turned in the expense report.

As Marzanec points out, "Top shelf is only a buck more and 10 times better."

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