“We probably sell eight or 10 of them a week,” says Tim Griffin, general manager of N9NE, an upscale Chicago steakhouse. “That’s pretty good for a $69 drink.”
The drink in question is N9NE’s Ultimate Margarita, made with Herradura Seleccion Suprema, a rare 10-year-old tequila, Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal and Grand Marnier 150 Year (see recipe). The Margarita is available at all three N9NE restaurants, in Chicago and also at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas and at the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa outside of Palm Springs, CA.
Why serve — and why order — such an expensive cocktail?
“First of all, the taste is excellent, it’s unbelievable,” says Griffin. “Second, we have a very upscale crowd. They order them for each other, to outdo each other.”
At the two Dos Caminos restaurants in New York City, you can manage to order a $125 Margarita — and people do, even though the restaurants do not specifically market them, according to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun.
“You can have a Margarita made with any tequila,” explains Eben Klemm, director of cocktail development at B.R. Guest, the restaurant company behind Dos Caminos. “That’s what takes us up to $125.” The 100+ tequilas listed on the Dos Caminos beverage menu range from $11 to $125 in price — and people want to order these high-quality spirits. The most popular tequila brands at the Dos Caminos restaurants, according to Klemm, are Chamucos, Herradura, El Tesoro and Patron.
Says Klemm, “People are moving away from mixto and towards 100% [agave] tequila. There is also a growing respect for the fact that [a high-quality tequila] is worth paying for, as much or more than they would for a premium vodka.” (By law, a tequila must contain a minimum of 51% spirit distilled from agave, a plant related to the lily. A mixto contains at least this minimum but also distilled spirits of other types. A 100% agave tequila is, as the name implies, distilled entirely from agave.)
Jim Baron, owner of Blue Mesa Grill, a five-restaurant operation based in Dallas, agrees. At his restaurants, the Top-Shelf Margarita, made with that month’s featured tequila brand, far outsells any other type of Margarita, including the frozen ones. In May, for example, Blue Mesa’s Top-Shelf Margarita was made with Sauza Tres Generaciones Plata, Cointreau and fresh lime juice ($8.50).
Margaritas remain the most popular way to order tequila, bar and restaurant operators report. However, those Margaritas are changing. At Blue Mesa, most Margaritas are ordered on the rocks, not frozen. The same is true at Salud, a tequila lounge in Chicago, where the house Margarita is made with El Tesoro Platinum, fresh lime juice and organic agave nectar ($8).
The house Margarita at the four Iron Cactus restaurants in Texas, called the El Agave, is a classic Margarita, served on the rocks and made with a silver tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime and simple syrup. “It’s won ‘Best Margarita’ twice in Dallas,” says Gary Manley, one of the owners of the Austin-based operation.
Dos Caminos’s Klemm believes it is the fresh juice in his restaurants’ Margaritas that make them stand out from the crowd in New York. “We have one person whose job is just to squeeze juice daily for our Margaritas,” he says. “This is the single most important thing that sets us apart.”
At the two Cantina 1511 restaurants in Charlotte, NC, however, owner Frank Scibelli had to tweak the house Margarita recipe, which includes fresh juice. “It was harder [to develop] than the food,” says Scibelli. “We’d literally have one person say it was the best Margarita they’d ever had and the next person send it back.”
The problem was a two-pronged one. First, using fresh juices, which could be sweeter one night and more tart the next, made it difficult to produce a consistent flavor. Second, Scibelli speculates, in his market, people are still more accustomed to Margaritas made with mixes.
So, Scibelli and his staff took their original recipe — made with a tequila of the customer’s choice, usually a 100% agave blanco, Grand Marnier and fresh orange and lime juices — and after a long search, found a mix to add to it to produce a consistent level of sweetness. “Everybody has different tastes,” says Scibelli, “but after a lot of work, we’ve got a recipe that gets a lot of compliments and not too many complaints.” The Cantina 1511 Margarita is served on the rocks with a salted rim.
Though operators with tequila bars encourage customers to order classic, on-the-rocks Margaritas, many find they still need to offer frozen ones. “We didn’t have a frozen machine originally, but within six months, so many people had asked for frozen Margaritas, we added one,” said Jay Runnfeldt, one of the partners that owns Salud in Chicago. “We don’t focus on them, though.” Salud’s frozen Margarita, at $8, is made with El Tesoro Platinum, agave nectar, fresh lime juice and the flavor of the day, which comes from a fruit pureé.
As in so many other areas of food and beverage, customers are looking for new and different flavors in their Margaritas. Popular Margarita flavors at the two Dos Caminos restaurants in New York have included guava (see recipe), passion fruit and blueberry/pomegranate. “This summer, we are going to do a strawberry/jalape