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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Our Quest for the Best Margarita in Westport

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By Benedicte Berg & Eileen Hart

In advance of Cinco de Mayo today, two margarita-loving ladies began to wonder: what Mexican restaurant makes the best margarita in Westport?WestportNow.com Special ReportWestportNow.com Image
Benedicte Berg (l) and Eileen Hart, two Westport stay-at-home moms, enjoy margaritas at Westport’s Viva Zapata. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

We had a number of burning questions to answer: Who is/was this Margarita anyway? Did she like salt? What exactly goes into a margarita? A quest was born.

Our rigorous scientific approach to this quest consisted in visiting the three Mexican restaurants in Westport twice each. Viva Zapata, co-winner of our Guinness quest (See WestportNow March 13, 2009), was a natural place to start. Then we visited Villa del Sol and Zole.

At each place we ordered a fresh margarita and/or a special margarita.

Up to this quest we had thought the main issue in ordering a margarita was deciding on the classic finishing touch: salt or no salt. 

We have since learned, through our hard-nosed and dedicated research, that other, weightier matters have greater import in the making of a good margarita. So, you may ask, “what makes up a classic margarita?” 

All the experts agree that the drink includes tequila, an orange-flavored liqueur, and fresh lime juice. Beyond that, we have encountered a number of falsehoods, misconceptions, and just plain confusion. Fear not: we are prepared to separate fact from fiction, myth from margarita:

Myth 1:  Tequila Comes From Cactus.

Tequila is actually made from the blue agave plant, which is related to the lily—margaritas for Easter brunch, anyone?  The blue agave is not a cactus, though they do both grow in Jalisco state, where the town of Tequila is located. 

Some people may have labored under the misconception that tequila was Spanish for “hurts in the head,” but the drink is named for the town.

Similarly to the French government’s regulation of Champagne, Mexico’s laws state that tequila can only be produced in Jalisco State. The government has decreed that a tequila must contain at least 51 percent pure agave by volume. 

It groups tequilas into two categories: 100 percent agave and tequila mixto. The government further divides the tequilas into the following classifications:

(i) blanco or plata (white or silver), the youngest; and agave in its purest form

(ii) joven or oro (gold), usually contains additives such as coloring or sugars; “Tequila Mixto” is often of this type;

(iii) reposado (aged), has been aged at least 2 months in direct contact with oak;

(iv) anejo, (extra-aged) has been aged for over a year in direct contact with oak;

(v) Extra-anejo. (ultra-aged), has been aged for at least 3 years in direct contact with oak

Then the government got tired, and decided to stop regulating.

Myth 2: Tequila Has Worms

In reality, if your bottle comes with a worm in it, you are NOT drinking tequila, you are drinking mezcal (or mescal). If it comes with a worm outside it, you should find someone else to bring you drinks. 

Tequila is made solely from the blue agave plant, whereas mescal can be made from blue agave as well as other varieties of plants from the area. The Mexican government prohibits adding insects or larvae to tequila. We find that reassuring to know.

Myth 3: The Orange-flavored Liqueur Must Be Cointreau

Actually, the type of triple-sec used varies, and several are acceptable. Traditionally plain Triple Sec was used, but recently Cointreau has made inroads. 

Purists may insist on Triple Sec, which is made from sun-dried orange peels; however, others prefer Cointreau, which is made from bitter oranges.The former makes for a less potent drink, due to its lower alcohol content (20-30 percent vs. 40 percent in the Cointreau). 

The bartenders we surveyed all preferred Cointreau for margaritas.

Grand Marnier, a liqueur made with cognac and distilled bitter oranges, is sometimes used. We don’t recommend it, as it veers too far, in our humble estimation, from a traditional margarita.

Myth 4: Margarita Mix Is Equal to Fresh Lime Juice

We have learned, the hard way, that many places (who shall remain nameless) frequently offer up margarita mix in place of fresh lime juice. Beware! 

These mixes are generally very high in sugar (fine for cookies, bad for margaritas) and yield a canned or stale tasting drink.

When you walk into your establishment of choice, make sure you request a fresh margarita. Food-service fresh lime juice is a very acceptable stand-in for freshly-squeezed limes. 

We will spare you an extensive agricultural dissertation on the superiority of Key limes, which generally predominate in Mexican margaritas, versus Persian ones, which are less bitter and more frequently used here in the US.

Back to Tequila

Let us return to the heart of the matter, the tequila, for a little. There is some disagreement on which type is best suited to margaritas.

Some hold that the anejo yields too smooth a drink, and that a blanco or reposado is the best. Most experts agree that the joven or gold is best avoided, as it is essentially just a blanco to which gold coloring has been added, primarily for esthetic reasons. 

These tequilas often have the term “Gold” in their name. 

So which tequila should you choose? And do you really want to read all these labels before you can place your order?  We recommend you try several, such as Sauza Anejo Conmemorativo and Cuervo 1800 Reposado. 

As a general rule, if the tequila has 1800 in its name, that means it is an aged tequila: 1800 was allegedly the first year that tequila was successfully aged in wood.

Who Was Margarita?

The possible originators and inspirations for the margarita are legion. Most stories seem to suggest that the margarita was invented somewhere in Mexico, or perhaps in Texas, in the 1930s or 1940s. 

There are several references to the drink being named for Rita Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita Cansino. Nothing is known about her salt preferences. 

However, there are numerous other possibilities about the origins of the drink. We are just grateful that someone, somewhere, came up with it.

The Results

While we enjoyed the margaritas at all three establishments, those at Viva Zapata and Zole impressed us the most with their elegant blend of flavors. We considered these margaritas to be perfectly balanced between tangy and sweet, with a silky texture that we felt was “smoother than a baby’s bottom.”

Some Practical Pointers

Some of us had to give up margaritas for a few years, as they kept having certain unintended consequences, of the type that need to go to college one day. We have since learned to moderate our behavior. No, really.

And now, after having researched this article extensively, we can offer the following guidelines to anyone who wants to be able to enjoy this fine concoction responsibly and pleasurably: specify your tequila.

At the very least, pick a type (blanco, reposado, or anejo, and it must be 100 percent agave). Otherwise, the bartender or waiter may mistake your flexibility in this matter for complete ignorance, and may very well bring out bad quality tequila served with a sorry mix. 

Some places offer a Cadillac, top-shelf or Special margarita.  Although these may be fine, it is always safest to specify your order or to check what they put in these pre-named drinks. 

To be completely safe, just repeat after us: “I would like an 1800 Reposado margarita with Cointreau, on the rocks, no salt.” Or “I would like a margarita with Sauza Conmemorativo and Cointreau, straight up, no salt.” 

Or, for those who are reluctant to pronounce these odd-looking foreign words, just print out this page and bring it to your local bartender, where you can engage in that time-honored tradition of pointing.

We would like to, once again, acknowledge our intrepid co-researchers who helped us on this quest. They know who they are.

Posted 05/05 at 06:41 AM

Comments:     Comment Policy

Thank you for your informative discourse on one of my favorite drinks. I will be more discriminating in my choice of tequila in the future although I still prefer Triple Sec.

Posted by Luisa Francoeur on May 05, 2009 at 10:11 AM | #

Villa del Sol all the way!  Margaritas are great, and without a doubt, the Owner, Joe and his staff are always friendly, pleasant and so accommodating.  I just had a birthday celebration there with 55 people and my guests raved about the food, service, and of course, their margaritas!  Many of us will be there again for Cinco de Mayo!  In case you don’t know, they are located at 36 Elm Street, Westport.  Elm is off of Main Street by Lux Bond & Green/Williams Sonoma.

Posted by AUDREY HERTZEL on May 05, 2009 at 12:00 PM | #

No way! Zole! Ron at Zole makes THE best margaritas around. The food is fantastic. And…Ron is such a nice person!

Posted by Ana Rogers on May 05, 2009 at 01:08 PM | #

Terrific discourse.  Wish your review included Norwalk watering holes too .
Obviously your “stay at home mom” stuff is a fib.
Awaiting, breathlessly, for your report on single malts.

Posted by gil ghitelman on May 05, 2009 at 01:21 PM | #

I LOVE your posts!  Informative and funny.  It’s a “refreshing” break from our more run-of-the-mill news.  Keep up the research and reporting.  Salud.

Posted by Wendy Crowther on May 05, 2009 at 04:19 PM | #

Congrats Ron!  Zole is nothing less than great!

Posted by Jamie Walsh on May 05, 2009 at 10:01 PM | #

Viva Zapata margs are by far the best!

Posted by Barb Nicholas on May 06, 2009 at 10:14 AM | #

Thank you for preaching purity in Margaritas. I’ve seen too many horrors made with orange juice, sour mix and soda water (shudder).

We banned plastic bags in Westport, can we also ban margarita mix? Talk about improving the quality of life….

Posted by Jeff Kiker on May 06, 2009 at 12:24 PM | #

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