Written by: Layton Cox
Let me start this off by saying; I’m not a tequila guy.
Just like everyone, I have an experience that “killed” tequila for me. The first time I drank tequila, I did too many shots of Jose Cuervo Gold. To say the least, I didn’t feel good the next morning. A few years later, I forgot and made the same mistake. After that, I swore off the stuff. Tequila is the alcohol portion of the margarita cocktail. While I’m sure the majority of people can say they enjoy margaritas, the same majority can say that they don’t enjoy tequila.
I learned more about tequila doing the “research” for this article than I ever imagined I would.
For example, Jose Cuervo Gold is a horrible tequila. There are many better tequilas for nearly the same price. There are also many delicious mezcals for even less. The difference between a tequila and a mescal is all in the location. Just like Scotch in Scotland and Champagne in France, Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco. Everything else is a mezcal. One isn’t better than the other, they both have their pros and cons, but most people have had tequila and few people have had mezcal.
Another fun fact, the reason you lick salt before the tequila shot is because salt naturally opens up your taste palate to enjoy the tequila. The reason you bite the lime afterwards is that it naturally cleanses the palate after the shot. However, if you are drinking a good tequila or mezcal, you don’t need to take it in a shot.
However, let’s talk margaritas.
There are a lot of ways to make a margarita, but they all somewhat resemble this: tequila, sweetener (usually agave syrup, simple syrup, or in-house sweeteners), lime juice, and ice. Some mixologists will add orange juice to the mix as well, but that’s the general idea. As you can see, these aren’t super fancy ingredients, so the bartender has to put their unique twist on the drink by either selecting a particular tequila or by making their margarita sourer (with more lime juice) or sweeter (with more sweetener).
Quick, Efficient, Drunk: Illegal Pete’s Margaritas
Illegal Pete’s started its Tucson home after some turmoil. However, the two-story bar located at Main Gate by UofA is now a growing success. Tucson’s Illegal Pete’s is the first non-Colorado location of the seven-store chain, and it’s killing it. Joe Kaley, the manager, said that the Tucson location sells roughly 2x as many margaritas as their University of Colorado location. #ThisIsTucson There are no longer any protesters blocking the door, and it’s easy to see that the students at UofA have quickly started enjoying the new bar’s atmosphere.
The margaritas aren’t bad either. Made from an in-house recipe, one of Pete’s personal recipes actually, these were by far the strongest margaritas I sampled. Consisting of 2 shots of Sauza Silver Tequilla and ½ shot of triple sec, these margaritas had roughly 4 ounces of booze. However, they taste pretty good as well. Their margarita consists of fresh lime juice, orange juice, their margarita secret mix, and the tequila, the margaritas are on the tart/sour side of the scale but still go down easily. If you aren’t a big fan of the sour margaritas, they have strawberry, mango, and prickly pear margaritas that are on the sweet side.
If you want to get drunk quick for cheap, Illegal Pete’s margaritas are your best bet. On Cinco De Mayo they are doing $4 margaritas all day, their typical happy hour pricing. Even if getting drunk on Thursday isn’t your thing anymore, Illegal Pete’s has happy hour every day from 3pm-8pm and a late night happy hour during the weekends from 11 pm to 1 am, but don’t worry; the kitchen stays open until 2:30 am. You also get free chips and salsa with a purchase of any drink during happy hour. It’s a great deal.
While its location close to campus draws a younger more rowdy crowd, it’s still somewhere a young professional can fit into quite easily. Their food is solid, and their drinks are strong.
Authentic, Well Made, Simple: Penca’s Margaritas
Penca is a smaller bar located downtown. It has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Bryan, the bar manager and local Tequilla guru, said Penca serves as an informal happy hour or a great starting bar for those late nights. I couldn’t agree more. Penca takes their tequila and mescal seriously. Bryan was on his was to Oaxaca to test some potential new product, talk about a fun job. Bryan has been making this trip once a year for the past three years. He says he learns something new every time.
Penca’s margaritas had one of the most complex creation processes I’ve seen. Using a “small batch” tequila called Arette, in-house and freshly made triple sec, and freshly squeezed limes their margarita was delicious. Balancing perfectly on the fine line between sweet and sour, it was the easiest margarita to drink. Penca doesn’t believe it’s the bar’s job to tell their patrons what to drink, so they are happy to custom make you any variation of the flavor of margarita possible. With over 42 different Mezcals and ten different Tequilas, the options are high. They salt only about ¾ of the margarita rim, which is perfect for someone who hates licking salt before every drink.
These margaritas are easy to drink and don’t pack the booze-filled punch that many margaritas have. If you want a relaxing post-work happy hour or to start your night off with some of the best tasting tequilas and mezcals around, you want to head to Penca.
Tequila, Craft, Delicious: Reforma’s Margaritas
Reforma is a tequila-focused bar in St. Phillips Plaza. They have over 285 tequilas and 20 mezcals. These guys know their stuff. I spoke to Marcus and Steve for about an hour. They sold me on tequila, even after I told them about my Jose Cuervo experience. Marcus had the quote of the day when he said, “We have all killed tequila, but there is something here for everyone.” These guys taught, and showed, me that you can make tequila taste like nearly any other spirit, but nothing tastes like tequila. They also taught me that Patron isn’t worth the money and people who order it are just trying hard to look cool. However, their margarita is what got me in the door this time, and it’s what will bring me back next time.
Reforma has seven margaritas to choose from: House, Skinny, Blood Orange, Tamarindo, Prickly Pear, Mango Habanero, and Cucumber Mint. Each of them has an entirely different flavor profile and taste. While I wish I could dive into each of them, I’m just talking about the house margarita today, but I can promise you the rest are just as delicious.
Reforma is one of a kind in that instead of salting the rim of the margarita glass they use “salt air”. Salt air is like sea foam that is placed on top of your drink. It’s delicious. With every sip, you get a little bit of salt followed directly by your margarita but you never actually lick salt. This made the house margarita one of my favorites. Reforma’s house margarita has lime and orange juice, which makes it a little bit more sour than sweet. They also use the Suaza Blue Tequila and 100% agave sugar for sweetener. It’s a straightforward and delicious combo. If you want a margarita on the sweeter side, go for their Prickly Pear, if you want a more sour margarita, their Blood Orange is their most popular margarita on the menu.
I will be 100% honest with you; you shouldn’t go to Reforma for just the margaritas. The margaritas are fantastic (especially during Mondays when they are only $5), but you should go to Reforma because you want to learn how to like tequila. Just by telling them what kind of booze and non-tequila cocktails I like, they were able to get me three tequilas that I could sip on just as easily as sipping a coke. I was blown away. Reforma is Tucson’s best tequila bar.
Hola Cinco De Mayo
If you want to have a huge blowout day with very little memory of it afterwards, head to Illegal Pete’s for their $4 margaritas.
If you want to tip your hat to tequila and the margarita but still want to make it into work tomorrow at 7 AM, head to Penca and talk mezcal with the staff.
If you want a tasty and top-of-the-line margarita to end your long day, head to Reforma and don’t be afraid to ask the bartender what kind of tequila is right for you because there is a tequila out there for you.