Ask the bartender: Denver is not Margaritaville

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions. But right now, he's taking about margaritas.

I am a tequila aficionado who drinks only 100 percent agave. Plata (unaged), Reposado (aged two to eleven months) and Añejo (aged over one year) all have their time and place, and hold a special spot in my heart (and several spots on my liver). For the most part, I sip tequila neat -- but on occasion, I enjoy it in a cocktail.

One day when I stopped at a Denver bar, I ordered a plata tequila neat. The bartender recognized me from these posts, and really wanted to show off his margarita. Normally, I only order margaritas at places where I know they use fresh juices and I'm confident in the bartender's skills; while the margarita is one of the simplest drinks, it's also one of the most commonly butchered. But this guy was excited, I warily obliged.

And here is what I got:

Mixto Tequila (49 percent of which can be made from sugars other than agave) Non-alcoholic Triple Sec (basically corn syrup sweetened, with orange-flavored water) Rose's Lime Juice bottled sweet and sour mix a packet of sugar orange juice

The ingredients were mixed, shaken a couple of times, topped with a splash of Sprite (the bartender was very proud of this), and served in a huge goblet with a rim (both inside and outside) of kosher salt and sugar.

With each added ingredient. my eyes grew wider and fear settled in. Soon this unbelievably horrid concoction was going to be set in front of me, and the eager bartender was going to watch closely as I tasted his creation. There it was, staring at me, taunting me...the Darth Vader of margaritas (cue the Evil Empire music).

Bravely, I sipped -- and as I'd suspected, it was horrible. My mind was racing as I thought of all the polite things I could say, but in the end -- and since we were alone in the bar --I had to tell the truth: "It's not very good and way too sweet. Can I show you how to make a proper margarita? It has far fewer ingredients and will blow your guests away..."

He looked crushed and I worried about how he would react, but I had the opportunity for a teaching moment, to show him the way of the Jedi (yep, I love me some Star Wars). And soon he lit up and asked me to come behind his bar.

Although all he had was NA Triple Sec, he did have the king of all Curaçaos, Grand Marnier, as well as a few limes. I grabbed a bottle of agave nectar from my car (yes, I am that kind of dork), and together we made two versions, both with just three ingredients.

Margarita #1

2 oz. Olmeca Altos Plata Tequila 1 oz. Grand Marnier 1 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice

Shake with ice, strain over fresh ice into a glass with a half-rim (on the outside only) of coarse kosher salt optional. This recipe is also great with a .5 ounce of quality mezcal (like Del Maguey or Ilegal) to add a touch of smokiness.

Tommy's Margarita (named for Tommy Bermejo, the recently deceased tequila icon of Tommy's in San Francisco)

2 oz. Olmeca Altos Plata Tequila 1 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice .75 oz.- 1 oz. agave nectar (to taste)

Shake with ice, strain over fresh ice into a rocks or highball glass. Salt optional.

The bartender was blown away by both -- and realized that these drinks, with a third the number of ingredients of his original abomination/creation, would make his life a lot easier behind the bar. He's since become a friend (I swore to him that I would never reveal his identity as long as I drink for free -- kidding, kind of), and he's been making them the right way ever since.

A couple of quick notes on lime juice, a key ingredient for a quality margarita. A gallon of pasteurized lime juice is not considered fresh, even though it says so on the container; it has a tinny, metallic taste that ruins a good marg. The best juice to use is squeezed fresh for each drink or at least within a few hours of the drink being made (in high-volume restaurants, it's almost impossible to squeeze fresh for each drink). The juice should also be strained to avoid pulp in your margarita.

Unfortunately, bad margaritas are a common plague in Denver and across the country. In my time as a tequila ambassador, I have had more horrible ones than good ones. But it's easy to make a great margarita: Just remember to keep it simple and keep it fresh.

Do you have a favorite margarita in Denver? I'd love to find more places that do it right; share your favorites in the comments section.


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