The famous former Rainbow Room mixologist and “King of Cocktails,” Dale DeGroff, recently led a margarita-making tutorial on the upstairs level of Nest, a club in Chelsea. The purpose of the event (sponsored by Cointreau) was to demonstrate the ease of concocting the cocktail from scratch using merely limes, Cointreau, and tequila—and to prove the superiority of Cointreau over Triple Sec, to say nothing of the thorn-in-the-side of cocktail purists everywhere, the lowly pre-made mix. With a few deft flicks of his hand, the distinguished DeGroff—movie-star handsome, a shoe-in for the role of 007’s Debonair Bartender—breezily tossed lime juice, Cointreau, and tequila in a shaker, rimmed an old-fashioned glass with salt, and poured the sublime concoction over the rocks. As light and refreshing as lemonade, a perfect melding of salty, sweet, and tart, DeGroff’s margarita was unquestionably superior to anything that came out of a blender.
My sister and I purchased a bottle of Cointreau shortly thereafter and set about recreating the DeGroff margarita at home. After what seemed like ten million discarded limes later, she placed in front of me a half-full glass of milky, light-green liquid—then threw herself on the couch, exhausted from her laborious lime squeezing. Still set on being DeGroff’s beloved pupil, if not part-time girlfriend, my sister’s second attempt was only a slightly improvement, and involved a vicious, frenzied force feeding of skinned limes into our overtaxed, ancient juicer.
For purposes of ease and cheapness, the margarita-from-a-mix will be the standard at most Cinco de Mayo house parties this week. Don’t consider it a cop-out. Think of it as what Taco Bell is to Tex-Mex cuisine; what Kraft Mac n Cheese is to Mom’s homemade recipe: Not even worth comparing to the real thing, yet a unique, special joy unto itself.
I tried out a few of the more popular mixes on the market, and one new addition, to find the best—or depending on how you look at it, the least noxious, least blindingly-fluorescent of the bunch.
Bacardi Frozen Mixers, margarita-flavor, $3.00 at C-Town
There’s something so wine-cooler smarmy about the frozen Bacardi mixer. Pop one open, and it is like you’re transported to a sordid Ice Storm-esque wife-swapping party where all the middle-aged men look like Burt Reynolds and drive Trans-Ams. Get past this, and the Bacardi mix does have its advantages: The color is nearest to that of a genuine margarita, and it does offer the closest simulation to a restaurant-quality frozen version. (Throw most liquid mixes in a blender with ice, and you’ll have to settle for drink that separates into ice pebbles and a light-green slush almost immediately.) With 17 percent lime juice, this was the most acidic of the mixes—and the tartness might become overwhelming after several drinks.
1800 The Ultimate Margarita, $14.99 for a 750mL bottle
Released just this month, the new 1800 The Ultimate Margarita is supposedly the first ready-to-serve margarita made with 100 percent blue agave tequila. It doesn’t require any additional liquor; the instructions on the back advise just pouring the liquid over ice. But the drink did not seem to hold up as well served on the rocks as it did blended into a frozen ‘rita. The Ultimate Margarita’s one advantage is that it is fairly idiot-proof. The cocktail is already mixed and (fairly) well-balanced—so just add a little lime juice if, like me, you find it too sweet; or more tequila, if it seems too weak.
Sauza Classic Margarita Mix, $3.99 for 1L bottle at Astor Wines
Sauza margarita mix is just like Sauza tequila—a half-step down from the rest of the market. The most fluorescent of the bunch, Sauza is admittedly less syrupy-sweet than Bacardi or 1800. But it’s not particularly smooth, and you’ll have to use a higher-grade tequila to compensate for the harshness.
Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix, $3.99 for 1L bottle at Astor Wines
Out of all the lower-priced mixes, Cuervo wins: It goes down smoother than the Sauza, is less acidic than the Bacardi. Just like with the other two, however, creating a decent frozen margarita is a matter of balance. Toss in too much mix, and you’re downing a liquified pixie stick. But made with a skilled blender’s hand, it can be a perfectly acceptable drink for summer BBQs or accompanying cheap Mexican take-out. For better or for worse, this is like reliving freshman spring break in Cabo or NYU drinkathons at Senor Swanky’s: It’s not pretty, but it is $3.99.
The price of a small bottle of DeGroff-approved Cointreau? $18.00.