Now, at the beginning of our 5th year, Southern Arizona Guide embarks on yet another Top Ten list, the Best Margarita. We started with the Best Mexican Restaurants; then moved on to Best Burgers, Best Pizzas, and last year, Best Steakhouses in Tucson. In between, we ate our way through the best Sunday Brunches.
Then one of our newsletter subscribers suggested we compile a list of the Best Margaritas. As the Margarita is THE classic Southwestern cocktail, we readily concurred.
The first challenge we faced was deciding upon the criteria. A little research revealed that there are at least two-dozen types of Margaritas, from the Classic to the Cucumber – Jalapeño Margarita.
In the end, we decided to let each bartender delight us with whatever Margarita he or she thinks is their best. We would select #1 based on the same discriminating criterion we used for the other categories.
“If time & money were no object, and we could only ever have just one of these margaritas, which one would it be?”
A Classic Margarita
This cocktail with which we are most familiar consists of tequila, triple sec, and lime juice served over ice with sea salt and a citrus garnish on the rim of the glass. Some are made with fairly inexpensive tequilas; others with more expensive, premium tequilas.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, most people can taste the difference and, if money is no object, most prefer a margarita made with premium labels. Premium tequilas range from Jose Cuervo 250 Aniversario ($2,000) to AsomBroso 11 Year Añejo ($1,200) to Maestro Dobel ($40). However, I cannot image why anyone would dilute a super-expensive tequila in a cocktail. That would border on sacrilegious.
While tequila aficionados may be familiar with the categories reposado (aged at least two months) and añejo (aged at least a year), the extra-añejo label applied to tequilas aged more than three years. The main characteristic of most premium tequilas is that they are aged in oak barrels and made from 100% pure Blue Agave. Cheaper tequilas are sometimes made by mixing Blue Agave tequila with less expensive mescal. However, to be labeled “tequila” this liquor must be at least 51% from Blue Agave.
Tequila is distilled from the Blue Agave plant grown almost exclusively in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal (or mescal in English), but mezcal can be distilled from any of 28 types of Agave plants.
Most mezcals are made from the most common agave called Espadin. However, some mescal distillers or mezcaleros blend multiple varieties of agave to create distinctive flavors. A typical mezcal has a sweeter, smoky flavor that distinguishes it from tequila.
Triple sec is an orange-flavored liqueur made from the dried peels of bitter and sweet oranges. Curacao, Grand Marnier and Cointreau (pronounced KWAHN-troh) are popular triple sec’s.
My sipping companion for the first afternoon of critical Margarita tastings was Ms. Toby, marketing director for the fast-growing Town of Marana immediately north of Tucson.
Our first of two stops was the bar at lo Esencial (Basics), a fairly new Mexican grille located at the intersection of Twin Peaks and Tangerine. Ron Dearman is the bartender and, we later concluded, a master mixologist. Ron started bartending in 1998 at the famous Jefferson Hotel in Downtown Portland, Oregon where I graduated from Portland State University 47 years ago. Two of our grandsons are attending there now.
Ron has a culinary education and perfected his vintage classic cocktails, such as premium Manhattans and Sidecars, by studying the works of famed mixologist, Dale DeGeoff, author, James Beard Award winner, and founder of the Musuem of the American Cocktail.
At first, Ron prepared two different Margaritas. One I would call a Classic Margarita in that it was made with Don Julio Blanco, a premium silver (clear) tequila. Consumed “neat” or “on the rocks”, silver tequilas have a crisp agave flavor with hints of citrus. They are the basis of most margaritas. The result was a very citrusy cocktail … tangy, slightly sweet, slightly sour and much to my liking.
The other was made with Don Julio Reposada. This is a gold or amber-colored tequila aged for 8 months in American white oak barrels. It has a richer, smoother finish than the clear blanco or silver tequilas. Ms. Toby preferred this one for its smoother, more complex traits.
At this point in the taste-test we thought Ron had shown us his best. We did not know he had an ace up his sleeve.
Having sampled two different and very fine margaritas, Master Ron served us the most unusual, and seriously interesting margarita either of us have ever enjoyed.
He calls it a “Chiaibucha”.
Prior to serving us the two margaritas mentioned above, Ron let us sample a tea he makes from dried Jamaican hibiscus flowers and told us about Kombucha, the art of fermenting tea. Neither Ms. Toby nor I had ever tasted anything quite like it. Certainly not as tart as cranberry nor as sour as lime juice, yet very tasty.
Now, he added his amazing hibiscus tea with chai masala spices, jasmine, green and pekoe teas to his other ‘regular’ ingredients: Cointreau, Don Julio Tequila, and house-made margarita. He ferments this tea with a scobie (probiotic mushroom) for about a week. All I can say is Ron Dearman’s “Chiaibucha” is like no other Margarita you will ever have the pleasure of drinking. Excellent!
I should also mention that lo Esencial's salted, crispy, freshly made tortilla chips and salsa were fine compliments to our cocktails. Methinks I should dine there soon and write a review. Their menu looked most appetizing.
Next, Ms. Toby & I headed up the road to Margarita taste-test #2.
Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain
Neighbor Roy & I have had some experiences with the Ritz. A few years back, just for the fun of it, we went in search of the Most Expensive Lunch in Tucson. We found it in the Ignite Bar overlooking the gigantic pool at the Ritz. We each had their amazing buffalo tacos plus two glasses of some of their least expensive white wines: Total $67. We still talk about the experience. Not the price. Those buffalo tacos … superb!
Michael Aylmer, Director of Sales & Marketing at the Ritz, assured me that they still serve buffalo tacos. Trust me, these are like no taco you have ever tasted.
A year later we were in search of the Best Burger in Tucson. We had experienced several good burgers around town and I had written the reviews, mentioning we still had several more burger places to try. Most locals are aware that, when we are doing a dining review, seldom does the restaurant owner, manager, or chef know that we have dined at their establishment until a week or three later when we publish our review. But sometimes I slip up.
In one review in which I commented on other burger places we wanted to try, I mentioned Cayton’s Burger Bistro at the Ritz golf course. I didn’t think anything of it … until Neighbor Roy and I were there ordering our Cayton burgers.
Cayton’s chef emerged from the kitchen, walked over to our table and said, “Welcome, Mr. Gressinger. We’ve been expecting you.
I almost fell out of my chair. “How did you know,” I asked.
To which he replied, “We read your newsletter.”
We all had a good laugh. If you want to read our Cayton’s Burger Bistro review, CLICK HERE.
The Grove Margarita at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain
You cannot just order The Grove Margarita off the Ritz menu. Oh no. The Grove is way too special for that. You have to be a member in good standing in the Ritz-Carlton’s Secret Society of Specialty Margaritas: Michael Bell, Assistant Food & Beverage Manager and Specialty Margarita Grand Wizard.
The Grove Margarita is Ritz-Carlton’s off menu specialty margarita that they make from fresh picked oranges from their own grove in which they have several varieties.
Michael started by placing a citrus twill completely around the inside of the glass. This will serve as garnish.
Then he tossed an orange peel into a nitrous oxide dispenser along with Maestro Dobel tequila. Then he loaded the dispenser with a nitrous oxide cartridge. Locked and loaded.
According to Michael, the pressure of the inert gas exerted on the tequila and peel make them macerate* almost instantly, thus releasing flavorful oils from the rind. The ingredients:
- 1.5 oz. Citrus Infused Tequila
1.0 oz. Fresh squeezed lime
0.5 oz. Grand Marnier
1.0 oz. agave syrup
Shake with ice then pour and strain over ice.
*macerate: to cause to become soft or separated into constituent elements by or as if by steeping in fluid.
I should mention that Michael’s “shake with ice” performance was considerably different than Ron’s at lo Esencial. Where Ron shook his concoction mostly overhead with a minimum of body motion, Michael shook his mostly at chest-level. This produced peculiar gyrations somewhat akin to a combination of the macarena and the bump & grind. I have no idea how important these dance moves were to the final product. However, Ms. Toby & I CAN say that The Grove Margarita at Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain is OUTSTANDING.
Judging the Top 10 Margaritas is going to be harder than I thought. Next, we are going to try a couple of popular Downtown bars, starting with Agustin Kitchen, El Charro Cafe, and the bar at Hotel Congress. Wish us luck.
To continue this search for the Best Margarita see Top 10 Margaritas, Part Dos.