Additionally, feel free to replace a portion of the tequila with mezcal, the smoky agave spirit of which tequila is a specific subset. Start by subbing out ½ ounce tequila and feel it out from there. You can even get wild and sub in non-agave spirits like gin or Bourbon.

Sweet or dry, strong or weak?

For a drier margarita, ditch the agave syrup; on the other end of the spectrum, make your drink sweeter by upping the agave syrup to ½ or even ¾ ounce. For something less potent, try equal parts tequila, lime, and triple sec (1½ ounces each) and cut the additional sweetener. It’s always worth it to play around with measurements and find where your personal preference is. Remember, just because someone else wrote it down in a recipe does not mean you have to like it.

Orange liqueur switches

For a fresh, vibrant margarita, use a triple sec like Cointreau, a French liqueur made with bitter and aromatic orange peels. For something a little richer, perhaps with more of an autumnal vibe, use Grand Marnier, a Cognac-based liqueur. Blue Curaçao is also an extremely valid option.

You say you want to make a margarita without orange liqueur? Did you miss the part where I laid out the margarita’s core elements? Just kidding: It’s your party. Bump up the agave syrup to ¾ ounce for balance or swap out the liqueur for ½ ounce simple syrup.


For a spicy margarita, you can toss one or two thin slices of jalapeño or habanero chile into the shaker. For something more herbal, you might want a handful of cilantro or mint. You may also choose to play around with the citrus: Go for part lime juice, part lemon or grapefruit (but know that using too much grapefruit juice will land you squarely in Paloma territory).

Play around with the fruit component if you’re so inclined. A little peach nectar or salted watermelon juice can go a long way toward giving your margarita a new personality.

When considering garnishes, skip the lime wedge for a more aesthetically pleasing lime wheel. Play up the flavor of the liqueur with an orange twist. Or toss a few round slices of cucumber or kiwi into your margarita glass.

To salt, or not to salt?

Salt makes everything taste better. But if you don’t feel like going through the work of salting the rim of your glass (it’s a pain for a big crowd or when you’re using disposable cups), you can simply add a pinch of kosher salt to your cocktail shaker before shaking. One of salt’s wonderful qualities is that it can cancel out some bitterness from the orange liqueur and lime juice to enhance the sweet, fruity notes of the drink.

Up or on the rocks?

The weather is usually my guide: If it’s hot out, I go for ice cubes; otherwise, straight up is my preference. Ultimately, it’s a very personal choice and neither is wrong.

Topping off

Bubbles make everything better. Sparkling wine, seltzer, and even beer are great augmentations, especially if you want to lean more towards refreshing than strong. Margarita recipes are relatively forgiving and will not be thrown off balance with the addition of an ounce or two of something sparkling, but if you want to add an additional ¼ ounce of agave syrup to compensate for the added dilution and return a bit of body to the drink, go ahead.

More tequila, please:

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Give these majestic agave spirits the respect they deserve.

John deBary is a former/semi-retired bartender, author of Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails, the creator of a line of zero-proof botanical drinks, Proteau, and the co-founder and Board President of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.