When I heard about the campaign to keep tequila in the margarita cocktail, I perked up. The question of what makes a margarita legit may not be a major worry of the Western world, but it touches on the broader issues of cocktail-making tradition and cocktail purity. These are concerns that get me in a lather.
The mere mention of the words gin rickey, for instance, starts me on a diatribe on how hard it is to find a bartender who knows how to make the proper version of this summer cocktail. A real gin rickey is made with the juice of a whole lime, ice cubes, a jigger of gin and enough club soda to float the ice cubes to the top of the tall glass.
The recent row on the margarita front concerns the absence of tequila in some versions of the drink.
I would like to report that the honor of the margarita is being defended by everyday Joes and Josephines who are worried about preserving cocktail-making tradition. In reality, the battle is being waged by liquor houses who seem to be worried about market share. Heublein Inc. has filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York charging that so-called margarita-flavored coolers made by its competitors, Seagram Co. and E. & J. Gallo Winery, are violating federal law by using the word "margarita" on labels and packages even though these coolers do not contain tequila. Instead they contain malt liquor.
The bible of cocktail purists, "Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide, 63rd Edition," lists a margarita's ingredients as 1 1/2 ounces of tequila, 1/2 ounce of triple sec and 1 ounce of fresh lime or lemon juice. These ingredients are shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. The rim of the glass has been rubbed with the lemon or lime rind and dipped in salt.
Heublein spokesman Jack Shea talked about tradition when I called him in New York. I phoned him after I had received a letter from the Committee to Save the Margarita, a creation of Heublein. Shea said Heublein cares about margarita-making tradition because the company imports Jose Cuervo, a leading tequila brand in the United States. He told me it also handles a line of bottled, premixed tequila-based cocktails called Cuervo 'Ritas.
When he told me about the premixed cocktails, he lost purity points. I believe that cocktails should be made from scratch. In my mind, these premixed margaritas are an abomination. It's the equivalent of an establishment calling itself a coffeehouse and serving instant coffee.
To the liquor houses, however, the premixed drinks are an area of healthy sales. The more I heard about the Committee to Save the Margarita, the more I got the feeling that this was not so much a fight about tradition and purity as it was a ploy to recapture impulse sales in liquor stores.
Several liquor store owners in the Baltimore area, for instance, said the appealing points of the malt-based coolers are that they are a dollar or so cheaper and come in bigger bottles than the competing packages of the premixed, tequila-based Cuervo 'Ritas.
Spokesmen for Seagram and Gallo, makers of the margarita-flavored coolers, have said they are not breaking any laws. The lawsuit, over when a margarita is not a margarita, sits in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and may, according to a Heublein spokesmen, be heard this fall..
I am not sure how closely folks around here will follow the court case. A chart on tequila-consumption statistics shows that we are not exactly dwelling in Margaritaville. California leads all other states in tequila sales; Texas is second. The chart I saw listed only the top 10 states, and Maryland was not on the chart. Baltimore did not appear on another chart showing the nation's top 25 metropolitan markets for tequila. The Los Angeles-Long Beach area was the nation's leading metro market, with Houston finishing second.
The truth is that as the Triple Crown horse-racing season begins, I am more interested in making mint juleps and black-eyed Susans than margaritas. The julep is the customary drink to enjoy during the running of the Kentucky Derby. The black-eyed Susan is the traditional beverage served during parties celebrating the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.
I found recipes for both in "Hunt to Harbor," the cookbook of local eats and drinks published by the Junior League of Baltimore.
To make a black-eyed Susan, you fill a 12-ounce glass with shaved ice and add 1 ounce of vodka, 1 ounce of rum and 3/4 ounce of triple sec. Then you squeeze the juice of a lime wedge into the glass and fill the glass with equal parts pineapple juice and orange juice.
To make a julep, you place six mint leaves, 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of club soda in the bottom of a julep cup or tall glass. Then you muddle, that is mash, the mint leaves with a wooden stick. Next you fill the cup with pulverized ice. Finally, pour whiskey to top of the glass.
In Kentucky, the traditional julep whiskey is bourbon. In Maryland, it has been rye. Either way, as long as you make the drink from scratch, you can claim to be a purist.