By Mark Gauert
We may raise a margarita glass – or dos – on el Cinco de Mayo, a day recalling the victory of Mexico over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862; but we should not forget how much Mexico’s national tequila cocktail owes to the vanquished French.
Without the French liqueur, after all, the margarita would be just a cold, limey shot of tequila. Without the Mexican tequila, the margarita would be, well, just cold and limey liqueur.
As we know, innovation often comes out of conflict. From World War II, synthetic rubber. From Cold War missiles, rockets to the moon. From the Mexican militia chasing the French the heck out of Mexico, tequila and Cointreau living in peaceful – and delicious – coexistence at the bottom of our glass.
If there was a Nobel Peace Prize for cocktails, the margarita would win hands down (and bottoms up). We owe much to Mexico and France for this contribution to civilization. To this entente cordiale.
So it came as some surprise to see the two sides – represented by Master Sommelier Juan Gomez, originally from Mexico City; and Richard Lambert, Brand Ambassador for Rémy Cointreau, originally from Angers, France – squaring off on either end of the bar at The Breakers in Palm Beach. Not exactly the battlefield at Puebla, but a surprise to find a little squabble can still break out over how to make a margarita.
For starters, “for me, [there] has to be salt on the margarita,” Gomez declared. “It adds an extra flavor of complexity.”
“Salt is too harsh,” Lambert shot back. “I really don’t make a margarita with salt.”
“There’s a great conflict between the sweetness of the sweet and sour plus the fresh lime adds the acidity,” Gomez returned. “You need a little contrast, [and] the salt makes it happen.”
Time for a cease-fire here, I said. And a drink.
Gomez had just shaken up a Cointreaurita, a truly amazing, deconstructed margarita with most of the classic ingredients, served this day in a martini glass under a cloud of salty foam. Unlike a traditional margarita, his Cointreaurita serves up the salt as a delightfully disorienting after taste.
It can also leave a salty-foam moustache, Gomez added. Guests at The Breakers often ask, “Where did you get that foam moustache? [I say,] Ask for the margarita.”
Lambert, nonplussed, was busy on the other end of the bar, shaking up his own “very classic” version. He said he was sticking to the same exquisitely simple recipe that Margaret “Margarita” Sames and her husband, Bill, mixed up for a Christmas party at their hacienda in Acapulco in 1948.
“Legend had it,” added Edward Levy, South Florida Market Manager for Rémy Cointreau USA, “that cocktail kept the party going for two weeks.” (The distiller recreates the moment – perhaps just a tiny bit fancifully – in a video starring burlesque icon Dita Von Teese).
The Sames’ original recipe called for salt, but Lambert was busy rubbing something else along the rim of his glass.
“Just a little jalapeño,” he said, “to give it a tickle.”
Lambert poured Partida tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and ice into a shaker, shook it 35 times (yes, we counted – later in slow-mo on the video) and strained the cold concoction into a martini glass. It was delicious – as amazing in its simplicity as Gomez’s had been in its molecular complexity.
It was clear Gomez and Lambert could agree on many things. The same amount of Cointreau in their recipes, for example. About the same amount of tequila, too. Always shaken – sorry, Jimmy Buffett – never blended, never frozen.
This sounded like a truce.
“But you got to have salt,” Gomez persisted.
Perhaps, Lambert conceded, finally. But only for appearances.
“If I do the salt on the rim, I [put it on] only half the glass,” he said. “If you want to make something really beautiful for your margarita, use a black natural salt from Hawaii. You put some black salt around your glass and it’s really beautiful.”
Will we ever resolve the salt/no salt conflict, once and for all? Will there ever be peace at the bottom of our glass?
“We will never resolve the issue,” Lambert said, laughing. “It’s what makes the complexity of our world. That’s what makes the beauty of the world.”
The Original Margarita, the recipe Margaret “Margarita” Sames and her husband, Bill, are said to have mixed up on the fly for a party in 1948.
1 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. Premium blanco tequila (for this tasting, Richard Lambert used Partida)
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
Shake with ice and strain over fresh ice into margarita glass. Sometimes, it’s better to keep things simple.
The Cointreaurita, mixed by Master Sommelier Juan Gomez at The Breakers Palm Beach.
3 oz. of Patrón silver tequila
1 oz. sweet and sour mix
1/2 oz. fresh squeezed yuzu (a Japanese citrus)
1 oz. Cointreau
Served with Cointreau spheres and salty foam.
Master Sommelier Juan Gomez uses molecular mixology to prepare the spheres of Cointreau and the delightful salty foam, which he pours into a martini glass and garnishes with an edible orchid. He then mixes the other ingredients, and serves them to guests in a shaker on the side. When he pours the liquid into the foamy glass, the Cointreau spheres float. Beautiful – like a mini lava lamp in your glass. (Editor’s note: Alas, the Cointreaurita is no longer served at The Breakers, since the closing of the Tapestry Bar there prior to the opening of HMF late last year. However, Gomez will be featuring a special Jalapeño Margarita this year for Cinco de Mayo. This margarita uses Herradura Tequila infused with fresh Jalapeno peppers, fresh Blood Orange Juice, instead of Sour Mix, as well as a Blood Orange Liquor instead of Triple Sec.)