The Margarita, aka the Tequila Daisy

There’s been a bit of a hot debate going on for a while about constructing the perfect margarita. Tommy’s in San Francisco promotes their 100% agave margarita heavily, which uses agave syrup instead of orange liqueur to sweeten it. It makes sense; eliminating the orange aspect makes the tequila flavor shine through. But there’s a problem with this.

As you dive into the world of classic cocktails, you begin to recognize cocktail families. Some are familiar, some, less so:

Sour: spirit, citrus, sweetener, often egg white
Fizz: sour with a carbonated aspect (soda, sparkling wine, etc.)
Cocktail: spirit, sugar, bitters, water (dilution from ice suffices)
Improved/Fancy Cocktail: spirit, flavored sweetener, bittering component, perhaps an aperitif wine…

You start to recognize the patterns everywhere. You read the menu description of a bar’s “Apple Orchard” (Calvados, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, orange bitters) and you understand that it is just a modified sidecar. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s great to know these formulae. Understanding what makes a sour delicious means it’s easy to begin to substitute the base spirit for another, swap flavored sweeteners or acid, etc…

It also means it’s a lot harder to be surprised. So when the Tommy’s-style margarita started making the rounds in San Francisco, I was a little confused. Because despite David Wondrich’s article about the history of the tequila daisy, people still don’t seem to talk about the fact that “margarita” is the Spanish word for “daisy.” And a daisy is an entire class of cocktail, comprised of spirit, citrus and flavored sweetener.

The most common sweeteners for daisies, historically, are yellow Chartreuse, grenadine, raspberry syrup and… curaçao. Curaçao, the orange liqueur in said margarita.

I like a Tommy’s margarita. I do. Quality tequila, fresh lime and clean sweetener? Delicious. It’s just that I don’t think it’s actually a margarita. The curaçao (or whatever version of orange liqueur you use) is what makes it a margarita, aka a tequila daisy, and not just a tequila daiquiri.

For the record, here’s how I make a margarita. (Note that I offset the citrus with simple syrup. You can invert the proportions of lime and curaçao and eliminate the simple syrup, but this makes the drink a bit boozy for my taste.)

1 1/2 oz 100% agave tequila
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz Cointreau or good curaçao
1/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup

‘Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with fresh ice and rimmed with salt if desired, or strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe.


I make and sell a grenadine through my company Small Hand Foods. It differs vastly from what is currently on the market, and some people have been asking why.

First and foremost is the issue of taste. There are generally two kinds of grenadine on the market: ones that contain juice, like Stirrings and Sonoma Syrup Company, and ones that don’t, like Rose’s and Monin. Unfortunately, although the ones with juice in them are far tastier than their artificial addititive counterparts, when mixing them into cocktail, they simply don’t taste like pomegranate. There is the sweetness, of course, and the citric acid tartness, but none of the tannic juiciness I associate with ripe pomegranate.

I had always understood that grenadine was a syrup made from pomegranate and sugar, grenade meaning pomegranate in French, and granada in Spanish. But unlike other cocktail ingredients I can find almost no recipes for it in my collection of old cookbooks. In fact, the only recipe I found is in Home Made Beverages: The Manufacture of Non-Alcoholic and Alcoholic Drinks in the Household by Albert A. Hopkins, first published in 1900. And it is a rather unfortunate one:

Extract grenadine, 2 oz.; liquid foam, 1 oz.; red fruit coloring, 1 dr.; syrup, 1 gal. Mix then add fruit acid, 2 oz.

(Syrup here would refer to simple syrup, made in this book by adding 2 pounds of sugar to each pint of water and heated until dissolved.)

So I guess we shouldn’t fault the modern artificial versions too much; they obviously are following a long heritage as well. But for me, I want a simpler product that tastes like its ingredients. I like to drink the way that I like to eat, close to the earth with minimal processing. I want to know my ingredients, how they were grown and produced, and if possible, the people that grew and produced them. So I knew that my grenadine was going to taste like pomegranate, and hopefully, make cocktails that tasted like there was pomegranate in them.

In a lot of classic cocktails, grenadine is called for in dashes, leading me to believe that it was used often for color. And if you look at a modern version of a common grenadine cocktail like a tequila sunrise, you will see that yes, indeed, there is a very noticeable color addition.

My problem is that if grenadine is made with just pomegranate and sugar, it wouldn’t be a bright red, it would be a darker, more wine-like color.

Perhaps we have gotten so used to artificial colors that something natural looks too muddy. When we serve a Shirley Temple at Heaven’s Dog we use Fever Tree Ginger Ale (as the Shirley Temple was originally made with ginger ale, not 7up or Sprite) and sink some Small Hand Foods Grenadine into the glass. Kids, and the occasional adult who order them, often look askance at the beverage until they take a sip. It’s really good, and tastes like ginger and pomegranate, like the actual ingredients. Unusual, yes, but only compared to the high-fructose corn syrup and FD&C Red #40 concoction we’ve become accustomed to.

There is a great discussion in the Spirits & Cocktails forum on eGullet about making your own grenadine. There are many, many recipes that contributors have posted, and every one of them is vastly superior to anything you can find on your typical liquor store shelf. However, one of the most interesting parts of the discussion is that some people add additional flavors to their grenadine, from vanilla to orange flower water to star anise. One post compared grenadine to pomegranate syrup like orgeat to almond syrup, as in, one is a pure flavor syrup and the other is a flavored syrup with pomegranate or almond as the base. Etymologically this is erroneous, of course, as grenade means pomegranate, and orge actually means barley, the culinary root of this syrup, which has evolved into its current form.

I tried adding flavors to mine. I love orange flower water, and thought vanilla, since it is often used in artificial grenadines, would make the syrup taste a bit more familiar. I even tried adding hibiscus, thinking it would donate a brighter red color and a bit of that lovely sorrel-like zing. But they all tasted weird to me. The vanilla made the syrup taste more like artificial grenadine, which was really unfortunate. The orange flower water tasted out of place and lended a body-product floral unpleasantness, the way too much lavender or violet can. And the hibiscus just muddied the bright acidity of the natural pomegranate.

So I came back to a pure pomegranate syrup. It’s dark and murky, like a reduced red wine sauce, and adds a lot of color to a cocktail. But it tastes juicy and rich, less sweet than commercial products, and still has a tannic bite that reminds you it comes from real fruit. And yes, it will add more flavor to your cocktail than the other stuff. But I think that’s the way it should be.

The Egg White Situation

As I mentioned before, I really like fat and protein in my drinks. They add extra dimensions not often found in modern cocktails. With the resurgence in pre-prohibition cocktails and cocktail culture, a greater amount of attention has been paid lately to texture.

Egg whites are a perfect example of a texture additive: once used to disguise the inferior quality and overall nastiness of bootlegged and homemade booze during prohibition, as well as the vile flavored stuff known as “bathtub gin,” modern bartenders now use egg whites to round out and integrate often aggressive, singular flavors into a cohesive whole.

I do think sometimes we’ve gotten a little too egg-happy. We have plenty of great-quality booze available, so we shouldn’t be trying to mask undesirable characteristics. The integration ability, however, can be used to great effect, often unifying strong elements like acidity from citrus, or sharpness and spice from high-proof rye.

In the case of the Ramos Gin Fizz, the protein unifies the herbal gin, the fat from cream and the floral orange flower water. The egg white also prevents the cream from curdling as it mixes with the lime juice. Try making one without the egg white; it tastes good, but every ingredient is readily identifiable, whereas with the egg it turns into a lovely, cohesive someone-spiked-my-orange-julius delight.

Two of my colleagues and friends make a similar drink, a gin-cucumber-mint spritzer sort of thing. Erik makes his with egg white and Cate makes hers without. The ingredients are almost identical, but the addition of the egg white changes the drink completely. They are both delicious: Cate’s Gin Snaggler is like having an amazing brunch with your epicurean friends and feeling a little naughty because it’s barely noon and you’ve got a buzz on. Erik’s Cricket Club Fizz is like being at brunch with the same buzz, but at a polo match at the same time.

So make them both!

Gin Snaggler
Cate Whalen, Pizzaiolo, Oakland, CA

1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
several mint leaves
11/2 oz gin

Muddle cucumber in mixing tin. Add ice and remaining ingredients and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a flute. Top with Prosecco. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Cricket Club Fizz
Erik Adkins, Heaven’s Dog, San Francisco, CA

several slices fresh cucumber (peeled if waxed)
several mint leaves
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
2 oz gin
1/2 oz egg white

Muddle cucumber in a shaking tin until juicy. Add remaining ingredients and shake without ice for several seconds. Add ice and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a fizz glass. Top with seltzer. Garnish with a slice of cucumber threaded with a sprig of mint.

Pisco Punch

Recently I had the pleasure of providing punch for a party hosted by the folks at Nirvino. It was a user appreciation party held at Le Colonial in San Francisco. I demonstrated making a punch in front of everyone, Martha Stewart-style, complete with swapouts and pre-measured ingredients. I also had two punches served at the onset for socializing. One of these was Pisco Punch.

Pisco Punch was a drink concocted toward the end of the 19th century by a barman named Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange in downtown San Francisco (where the Transamerica building now stands). Pisco, a clear grape brandy either unaged or aged in glass or stainless steel (which prevents color being added) is debated as being originally from Peru or Chile. Both countries have a history of making this spirit, although the methods of production differ slightly. Several types of grape are used, most often Muscat varietals. Pisco became popular in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, was widely imported, and was known for being quite alcoholic without tasting strong. Pisco punch was often compared to lemonade, but with “a kick like a mule.” Unfortunately the Bank Exchange closed its doors at the start of Prohibition, and cagey Mr. Nicol took his recipe to his grave.

What we do know are the ingredients of this drink: Pisco, lemon juice and pineapple gum syrup. Gum syrup (also known by its French spelling, gomme) was widely used back when bartending was a learned trade like any other, and bartenders passed on their knowledge in apprenticeships. They regularly made syrups, bitters, infusions and other ingredients for cocktails. Unfortunately, when Prohibition occurred, the men either had to find other work or leave the country, and a lot of culinary knowledge pertaining to drink-making was lost. So gum syrup largely stopped being used in favor of the far easier to make simple syrup. Gum arabic, resin from the gum acacia tree, is expensive and difficult to incorporate into a sugar syrup, and mixing water and sugar is, well, simple. But gum arabic lends a silky, viscous texture to cocktails that simple syrup does not.

Many modern bars, if they make a Pisco Punch at all, use a pineapple syrup made without gum arabic. And this, I think, is the problem with most incarnations. For a drink with only three components, one of which is the light and delicate Pisco, each one plays a very specific role. Without gum arabic, the drink is thin and rather flat. But with the added viscosity, it is round and flavorful, not rich per se, but full-bodied and satisfying.

Pisco Punch is not a true punch. (More on that later.) But it is well suited for being served as a punch, that is, in a large bowl for a crowd. Keep in mind, however, that dilution is a key component in this and any other drink, so you may want to add some water if the punch will be consumed rapidly. Otherwise let sit over large pieces of ice for a little while before serving, so the drink comes to an adequate balance.

Of course, it certainly can be served as a single cocktail, as pictured above. The proportions are absurdly easy, so scaling to any volume is simple. An added bonus is that when shaken vigorously with big chunks of ice, the gum arabic froths up to a nice foamy head and gives the drink a lovely white cap.

Pisco Punch
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz Pineapple Gum Syrup (this recipe is for Small Hand Foods syrup; if you make your own, add to taste)
2 oz Pisco (I use Marian Farms California-style Pisco. Neither Peruvian nor Chilean, this biodynamic farm in the San Joaquin Valley distills fantastic brandy in a copper pot still from Muscat and Thompson grapes.)

Shake vigorously with large chunks of ice and double-strain into a coupe. Garnish with a strip of lemon zest if desired.


I read cookbooks like novels. Cover to cover. You know how a lot of dudes have stacks of books in their bathrooms? My stacks are cookbooks. (And I like to take baths.)

Being the diligent bar geek that I am, I love old bar books. Most of us relish finding obscure recipes from out-of-print books that are interesting and delicious, and serving them along with their back stories. When Plymouth released their Sloe gin, Dominic Venegas started serving the San Franciscan at Bacar. It’s a cocktail listed in Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide from 1947. Delicious. (And beautiful. Dom’s got the sexiest collection of bar tools of anyone I’ve seen. Watching him work is an absolute pleasure.)

Once I started making cocktail ingredients in earnest, I scoured my old bar books for recipes. But aside from a few notable exceptions (Christian Schultz, the “other” author of Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, of course), there isn’t much by way of ingredient recipes beyond fruit and liquor infusions and the like. But then I found The Royal English and Foreign Confectioner: A Practical Treatise On The Art Of Confectionary In All Its Branches. Turns out it was drawn upon heavily for a book called The Art of Confectionary, which I had been looking for but was one of those rare, expensive auction types. But Kessinger Publishing has started reprinting vintage books under its Legacy Reprint series, and now I have a whole chapter on syrups! Including capillaire!

Capillaire is a gum syrup of sorts seasoned with maidenhair fern and orange flower water. There are many varieties of maidenhair fern, but the one called for in this recipe is Adiantum pedatum, or North American maidenhair. Evidently the plant is mildly toxic when fresh, but neutralized when cooked. (Much like apricot kernels, so I’m in familiar territory here.) Capillaire syrup was originally used to soothe throat and lung ailments. I’ve been looking for maidenhair fern with no success yet. I may have to buy a bunch of plants from an organic nursery and dry them.

Although, I have come across several recipes for capillaire that omit the fern altogether, so maybe it doesn’t contribute much by way of flavor. You know I’ve got to try the original though!