If you’re drinking margaritas by the pitcher or from a frozen slushy machine, you’re probably doing it wrong. Or, at least that’s what El Camino bartender Mick Perrigo says. “We don’t use mixes. It’s gross. It has to be freshly juiced,” he says. Stop by his bar in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood before the happy hour rush and chances are Perrigo is juicing. It’s the daily regimen he undertakes for margaritas that come with a refreshing twist: cucumber juice.
He turns this juice into simple syrup and serves it in drinks that he makes nightly. Tomorrow he’ll do it all again because he’s fresh obsessed. It has to be squeezed juice; no bottles of Margaritaville mix here.
“I like to think of my drinks as being nutritious and delicious,” he says with a smile. His riff off the classic margarita is the cucumber margarita, but it’s not the green vegetable that’s easiest to spot in the drink. After he shakes and pours the cocktail, Perrigo adds three pea-sized drops of Thai basil oil. It’s a garnish that’s more of an aromatic exclamation point to a drink that’s as cool as—you guessed it—a cucumber. Still, there’s no fussing with the classic margarita, Perrigo says. For his traditional margarita, he uses squeezed lime juice, Triple Sec and agave tequila (he prefers Sauza Blue Agave Tequila). Just don’t oversalt the rim, he warns. A quick rinse in some lime juice, then coat half the rim in coarse salt. “Some people like salt, others don’t. This gives everyone an option,” he says.
So, why all the fuss over a drink that’s generally reserved for beach loungers and Cinco de Mayo celebrations?
It has the history of being a time-honored drink, Perrigo says. The margarita made a splash on the drink scene in both Mexico and the United States in the early 1940s. It’s hard to pinpoint who exactly invented the drink. Some say it was Carlos “Danny” Herrera at his restaurant Rancho La Gloria in Tijuana, Mexico, who reportedly made the drink for Marjorie King, a famous actress who didn’t like the strong taste of tequila. Others say a German ambassador’s daughter, Margarita Henkel, ordered the first margarita from bartender Don Carlos Orozco in Ensenada, Mexico. There is however only one godfather to the mass consumption of the margarita: Dallas-based restaurateur Mariano Martinez.
On May 11, 1971, he took what was once a soft-serve ice cream machine and converted it into the world’s first margarita machine. Those who want to pay their respects to Martinez’s invention can visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where it’s on view as part of the ongoing exhibit, FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000. Regardless of whether you like your margarita frozen or on the rocks, salted or unsalted, Perrigo says the drink deserves a lot of respect. “Everyone knows the margarita because it’s a basic classic,” he says. “But that doesn’t have to mean boring.”
The Recipe: El Camino Cucumber Margarita
Because the margarita’s invention is the stuff of legends and lore, Perrigo gives us his take on the drink with this easy-to-follow recipe for the cucumber margarita.
1½ ounces tequila blanco (100% agave) 1 ounce cucumber syrup (recipe below) ¾ ounce fresh lime juice 3 drops of basil oil (recipe below)
Pour tequila, cucumber syrup, lime juice and ice into shaker. Shake well and double strain the drink into an iced goblet or cocktail glass. Add 3 drops of the basil oil to garnish.
Cucumber syrup: First, peel off all the skin from 3 to 4 cucumbers. With an electric juicer, juice, then strain the cucumber, removing the pulp (editor’s note: you can also liquefy in a blender, then strain). In a separate saucepan, heat and bring to a boil a simple syrup that’s 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Let the simple syrup cool before mixing in the cucumber juice. Then combine the simple syrup and cucumber juice. For every 2 ounces of simple syrup, add 6 ounces of fresh cucumber juice. *Note: To ensure freshness, keep refrigerated and do not let the cucumber syrup sit longer than 1 day.
How to make the basil oil: Begin by heating up some extra-virgin olive oil in a saucepan. Add in Thai basil to the heated pan for just a few seconds until you smell the aromatics of the basil, then remove it immediately. Repeat this process 3 to 4 times (the more rounds of basil you add, the stronger the basil oil will taste). Finally, let cool and bottle. *Note: Thai basil oil can be made in advance and will last you for several drinks. No need to refrigerate.
Tim Ebner is a food and drink writer based in Washington, D.C. For tips, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ebnert.