by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Nick Pironio
Here’s what you need for perfect frozen margaritas: A summer evening, a setting sun, a charcoal grill, and a few partners in crime. The rest is as simple as 3-2-1. Three parts tequila, two parts triple sec, and one part lime juice. Blend with enough ice to make it slushy, salt those rims, and you will understand the true meaning of happy hour.
In the halcyon days of my mid-20s, I fell in love with the frozen margarita. It was 1984. I was two years out of college and working for a friend in Raleigh who owned a hotel. One day he told me that two business partners were flying in from Dallas on a private jet. I could fly back with them, he said. I packed my bags.
When I arrived, I had no idea I had just touched down in margarita heaven. The frozen margarita has been around since the ’50s, but the consistently smooth restaurant variety, dispensed from a converted Slurpee machine, was invented in Dallas in 1971.
Right now the cocktail snobs are shaking their heads. Frozen drinks are strictly for amateurs – best served in a fishbowl or souvenir cowboy boot. Blenders are a bartender’s nightmare.
I’ll be the first to insist that a classic margarita should contain no ice at all. Shake it with ice and strain it into a stemmed coupe or martini glass. No dilution. Just frosty, lime-orange delight with the rich underpinnings of blue agave tequila. Bright, tart citrus balanced with sweet liqueur and a little kick of salt. Little wonder the margarita has grown from a border town libation to become one of the most frequently ordered drinks in the U.S. Not surprisingly, tequila is one of the fastest-growing spirits in the premium and super-premium categories. It’s nice to see tequila – and the margarita – coming of age.
But at 25, ignorance was bliss. Handcrafted cocktails were not yet on the radar. Every patio bar in Dallas pumped out “frozens” like it was, well, their job. And in Big D in the mid-’80s, happy hours al fresco were ritual affairs.
My wingman was Barry Thomas, a tall, broad, smiling Dallas native who showed me the ways of the city. We’d hit the Blue Goose on Lower Greenville Avenue on Friday, Dick’s Last Resort in the warehouse district on Saturday, and then on Sunday – just to extend our weekend indulgences – we’d post up in a little Highland Park cantina called On the Border.
Today, On the Border has 160 locations across the U.S. and in five other countries. There are two here in our backyard, in Raleigh and Cary. But back then, there was one. On Sunday afternoons, the corner of Travis and McKinney was the place to be.
“Two frozens,” I would call over the noise at the bar. “With salt.”
Sunglasses on, I’d hand Barry his glass, frosted over and piled high, garnished with lime and speared with a straw, and we’d weave through the crowd out to the deck. The aroma of mesquite charcoal mixed with the fragrances of the fairer sex, represented in abundance. We’d find friends, meet new ones. As the sun mellowed in the west, round two would appear. Shades on till dark. Grab some fajitas. A pitcher of frozens for the table.
Were the margaritas really that good? Let’s just say the recipe was just right.
These days, unless you’re a little closer to Mexico than we are here, frozen margaritas are not as easy to find as you may think. Franchises like On the Border, Chili’s, Salt & Lime, and Chuy’s offer them in multiple flavors, but most independent Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants don’t serve enough to keep the large-batch machines going. Typically, your margarita choices are either straight-up or on the rocks.
Dos Taquitos on Glenwood South is one exception. It’s got excellent frozen margaritas and a festive atmosphere to boot, an open-air bar and a fine-looking happy hour crowd, shades and all.
But these days, my happiest hours are at home. I can blend away to my heart’s content, and even when the batch isn’t perfecto, I’m having a swell time trying. The 3-2-1 ratio is a long-standing formula for margaritas, but with frozens you’ll want to increase the measure of fresh lime juice so the extra ice required for blending doesn’t dilute the flavor. And with pure lime juice instead of bartender’s sour mix (which contains sugar), a little sweetener helps.
Here’s a simple recipe, tested in my kitchen to rave reviews: 6 ounces of fresh-squeezed lime juice (five limes), 8 ounces of 100% blue agave silver tequila, 4 ounces of Cointreau and 4 ounces of simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water) to even out the tart, acidic citrus. Agave nectar is a good alternative sweetener.
Cointreau is a premium version of triple sec. To experiment with other top-shelf orange liqueurs, try Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, Combier, or Grand Marnier.
Combine your ingredients in a large blender and add ice up to about the 40-ounce mark (higher if you like a thicker slush). Blend at high speed until frothy and smooth. Don’t forget to rim the glasses with lime and chunky kosher salt ahead of time before pouring or spooning the drink into them. There are specialty salts that add a nice touch as well. Salt serves as a lively counterbalance to both the citrus tang and the sugar.
Tequilaphiles will tell you not to waste your time on anything that does not say “100% blue agave” on the label. I can confirm that in my taste test of Jose Cuervo Gold (“made with blue agave”) and 1800 Silver (100% agave), the latter had a cleaner, less medicinal nose and flavor. The clear silver (blanco or plata) tequila was outstanding in my recipe, but I also look forward to trying out a few reposada (golden, aged at least two months) and darker, robust anejo (aged 1-3 years) bottlings. I’ll even give a smoky mezcal a whirl.
Let the purists scoff. Get a gang together for some fresh, flavorful frozen margaritas and let the fiesta unfold. So what if it’s the neon tank top in a world of Ralph Lauren cocktails? The unrestrained pleasures of frozens are meant to be shared.
3-2-1 frozen margaritas
6 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice
8 ounces 100% blue agave silver tequila
4 ounces simple syrup
4 ounces Cointreau
Combine in a large blender and add ice to about the 40-ounce mark. Blend at high speed until frothy and smooth. Rim glasses with lime and kosher salt.
Or experience the machine locally:
Dos Taquitos Xoco
410 Glenwood Avenue