“Any bar that has a frozen-drink machine will tell you they pay the rent all year long,” says Erik Plambeck, co-owner of the Williamsburg bar Maracuja. “There’s nothing better than a frozen Margarita on a humid New York day.”
During the pandemic, comfort cocktails have thrived—chief among them, crowd-pleasing, colorful drinks poured straight from slushy machines in thick icy dunes, like a nostalgic soft-serve twist. Among the Frosés and Frieslings, pineapple-garnished Piña Coladas, multilayered Miami Vices and technicolor Cosmopolitans, the frozen Margarita has brought its A game. It’s a classic for a reason, and one that adapts like a chameleon to a splash of fruit purée or a spicy hot-pepper kick. But a crop of new-school frozen Margaritas takes creative license and stretches the boundaries beyond the expected via the addition of Spanish fortified wines, Italian amari, herbal French liqueurs and myriad combinations of spices, syrups and fruit that just might stick around long after summer ends.
Before it got the deep-chill treatment, the Frozen Sherry Margarita at the Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., began its life as Tommy’s Amontillado, a sherry-based Tommy’s Margarita variation created by beverage director Paul Taylor and his colleague Sherra Kurtz. “A split base version of the Tommy’s Margarita using reposado tequila and amontillado sherry was a combination that seemed not only right and natural, but perhaps even criminal to not at least try,” says Taylor. The two ingredients go together like “peas and carrots,” he says, and sherry acts as a bridge between the agave and lime. “At a base level, tequila loves salt. Amontillado sherry brings the salinity while also providing a nuttiness that accentuates the reposado tequila’s vanilla-like tones from its oak aging,” says Taylor.
Sherry also comes into play in the Summer Melon Marg, served at the historic Horse Inn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But the namesake ingredient entered the equation when chef and owner Matt Russell offered head bartender Andrew Burton a slice of first-of-the-season cantaloupe (from nearby Lapp Family Farm), particularly sweet and juicier than normal due to this summer’s heat wave, that he had sprinkled with salt for family meal. “I took one bite and my mind was blown. The flavor was so potent and candy-sweet with such a silky texture to it,” says Burton, who was immediately inspired to use it to elevate the kind of artificially flavored melon Margarita you might find at a chain restaurant. The floral sweetness from the cantaloupe stands in for the traditional Cointreau and becomes a driving flavor rather than just a modifier. “I wanted to focus on the role the salt played in that bite of cantaloupe, which led me to using manzanilla sherry for its high salinity and acidity to help cut through the sweetness of the melon,” says Burton. “The sherry paired well with the reposado since they both share a level of salinity and aged notes.”
Chain restaurant nostalgia likewise played a role in the creation of the Boogie Nights at New York’s Thai Diner. Though the only traditional Margarita ingredients are blanco tequila and lime juice, the multicolored affair is as craveable and refreshing as the OG. “It’s unanimous that all of us here at Thai Diner have a soft spot for the Dallas BBQ Bulldog-style frozen drink (don’t judge) and we’re definitely suckers for an attractive, bright-colored drink with eyepopping appeal that’s as fun to look at as it is to drink,” says Vince Ott, manager and beverage director of the eclectic Nolita restaurant. Ott jazzes up the tequila base with maraschino liqueur, dragon fruit purée and pops of citrus from a makrut lime syrup and makrut lime sugar–salt rim. An unexpected spritz of green Chartreuse adds an herbaceous finish to the drink, which is garnished with a pineapple frond and cheeky paper umbrella.
With this summer’s “feels like” temperature camping out in the 90s, it’s no surprise that the top sellers at two Brooklyn neighborhood bars are fresh spins on frozen Margaritas. At Public Records, a sprawling music-driven space in Gowanus, the Life of Peach is built around a Calabrian chile–infused blanco tequila, bolstered by blood peach purée. Lime juice and an agave blend bring balance with an unexpected note of dry, earthy bitterness courtesy of Zucca Rabarbaro amaro. “It was inspired by hot summers in both Southern Italy, where my family is from, and the summers I spent in Baja with friends in high school,” says founding partner Francis Harris, who notes that a successful frozen Margarita requires balancing the battle among alcohol, dilution and sweetness. “As with most frozen cocktails … if one wins the battle, the war is lost.”
At Maracuja in Williamsburg, meanwhile, The Cuj is brightened with Aperol and the bitter gentian-based Suze, sweetened with a combination of passion fruit and orange juice and finished with a dusting of Tajín chile-lime seasoning. “Passion fruit juice is the core ingredient,” says Plambeck, who notes that the bar’s name means passion fruit in Portuguese and Spanish. “I think by this point in New York bar culture, it’s pretty difficult to find a horrible Margarita.”
And that’s a good thing. “A proper Margarita can be an ethereal experience that brings sunshine to your day, and a poor one can ruin it,” says the Columbia Room’s Taylor. “I am serious here… Life is short, drink good Margs.”