The Best Tequila Cocktails That Aren’t Margaritas, According to Bartenders
Tequila is one of the most popular spirits, but plenty of people still don’t know what tequila drinks to order at the bar. Folks generally know that it tastes good with citrus, specifically lime. That leads to a lot of Margarita orders at the bar, despite there being plenty of other options to explore. As Jim Lunchick, head bartender and sommelier at Merriman’s Waimea, says, confining tequila cocktails to lime-based drinks like the Margarita “is like eating only plain cheese pizza all the time.” Here are the eight tequila drinks you should order at the bar instead of a Margarita, according to pro bartenders.
“It’s summer and I unapologetically drink frozen Margaritas on rooftops like it’s my job, but when I choose to deviate from that, my go-to is the tequila twist on a classic Moscow Mule,” says Nico Szymanski, head Bartender at Mr. Purple at Hotel Indigo Lower East Side. “It’s light and refreshing, and the ginger kick keeps it crisp enough to not weigh you down like the sweeter and heavier Margarita.”
You can also switch it up and use mezcal instead of tequila. Szymanski says his ideal Mexican Mule night is “a Casamigos Mezcal Mule, followed by shots of blanco, followed by Thai food off of Seamless, followed by minor regrets and Advil the next day. I make no apologies for this.”
“A well-made Tequila Sunrise is a highly under-appreciated cocktail,” says Rachel Kling, bartender at the Quill at The Jefferson. “If made with authentic grenadine (a rich pomegranate syrup) and fresh orange juice, it is a perfect refresher on a warm day.” She also suggests using an aged tequila like Casa Noble’s reposado, which “enhances the profile of a previously tired favorite.”
Naked and Famous
“Naked and Famous is from Joaquin Simo and is an equal parts drink with mezcal, green Chartreuse, Aperol and lime juice,” says Chris Resnick, lead bartender at Minnow Bar. “Absolutely delicious.”
Resnick also suggests the Siesta, which is made with tequila, Campari, grapefruit and lime juices. “More on the bitter and sour side but still very refreshing,” he says.
“Old Fashioneds with añejo tequila are very underrated, and I’m surprised more people don’t go in that direction,” says Joel Mesa, beverage manager of Pisco y Nazca. “This is a great cocktail that has all the complexity and warmth necessary when using a premium brand of tequila.”
Swap gin for tequila in a standard Negroni, and you have a winner, says Samuel Ortiz, bartender at Public Belt bar and lounge at Hilton New Orleans Riverside. “It’s a fun cocktail to make, and it has a far more interesting flavor profile than a Margarita.”
Sometimes keeping it extra simple is the way to go. “One of my favorite things to drink is a neat shot of blanco tequila and a cold lager,” Mesa says. “I call that Catching Up because that’s exactly what it’s going to accomplish if you arrive at a party late.”
Signature Tequila Drinks
Bartenders are using tequila in more ways than ever these days, and trying one of their custom cocktails usually pays off—even if it’s filled with ingredients you wouldn’t normally expect. Take the Spicy Shiso Sour at KYU, for example, which is made with Cazadores tequila, shiso, cucumber juice, yuzu, St-Germain, KYU Lab Thai Chili Tincture and egg white. “It was designed to be 'refreshingly spicy,'” says Nima Kasmaii, assistant beverage director at KYU. “Which totally beats a Margarita [10 out of 10 times].”
The Paloma is the next anytime drink and is by far the most common answer on what tequila cocktail you should be having instead of a Margarita.
“A little-known fact is that the Paloma is actually more popular than the Margarita in Mexico, the birthplace of both cocktails,” says Sebastian Munoz, restaurant manager of Lolo's Surf Cantina. Lolo’s makes it like it’s made in Mexico: tequila, Squirt soda and a grapefruit slice.
The Paloma is a simple cocktail, and places often have their own distinct twists on them. At Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen, it’s made with Tequila Avión, grapefruit and lime, and then the glass is rimmed with sugar instead of salt “because the sweet taste balances out with the citrus and finishes with a punch of tequila,” says Doc B’s beverage director Dustin Durrenberger. Merriman’s Waimea uses agave syrup, fresh grapefruit juice and soda water with a coriander salt rim. Fresh grapefruit juice is the perfect hack if the bar you’re at doesn’t have grapefruit soda on hand, says Megan Ardizoni, the beverage director at TAO Group’s Beauty & Essex, VANDAL and The Stanton Social. Roman Tartakovsky, the beverage director at Hudson’s at Pier 81, emphasizes that, if you want a good Paloma, unprocessed grapefruit juice is key.
But the Paloma doesn’t always have to be simple, which you’ll quickly find after ordering them at different bars. At SĒR Steak + Spirits atop Hilton Anatole, head bartender Colin Silva makes a Rosemary Paloma with a burnt rosemary sprig and tonic instead of soda. Allen Lancaster, head bartender at The Bar at The Spectator Hotel, makes a Paloma called When Doves Cry with Giffard Crème de Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur, a sweet white port called Ramos Pinto Lagrima and ginger beer.
However the Paloma gets to you, you won’t regret it. Kenneth McCoy, the chief creative officer of Public House Collective, sums it up best when deciding what tequila cocktail to get at the bar: “The Paloma cocktail, period. Way better than a Margarita! It’s a great summer jolt!”