It's Cinco de Mayo, and you invited friends over for margaritas. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, you may be tempted to pick up a bottle of margarita mix instead of making fresh margaritas (or tangerine-ginger margaritas). Which mix is best? We braved a sugar-and-tequila headache to taste eleven different versions.
The result: none of these mixes are as good as freshly squeezed juice, or even close. Though there are a few bottles that will do in a pinch, we recommend you enlist your friends to help you squeeze limes instead of buying any of these mixes. We're not sure why margarita mixes need to be so sweet; the best we tried balanced the sweetness with adequate acidity. The worst were syrupy, salty, and full of strange off flavors. For the most part, those with alcohol included in the mix should be avoided.
Ripe Pure Squeezed Agave Margarita Mixer
We were excited to see this in the refrigerated section of Whole Foods. It's made from fresh fruit, not juice concentrate—they say there are ten limes and two oranges in every bottle. But it's not as tart as if you'd started with fresh limes, and we found the tang of orange juice a bit out of place. Ripe's mix has a nice brightness that many mixes don't, but we really wish it weren't so sweet. If you have a soft spot in your heart for Minute Maid Limeade, this might be the mix for you. (Available online, $8.95)
Williams Sonoma Margarita Mixes
Williams Sonoma's mixes are created by Stirrings, but they're pretty different from the Stirrings mix. The WS Lemon-Lime version is made with key lime concentrate, orange juice and lemon juice, natural flavor, and cane sugar. It's much more puckeringly-tart than any of the others we tried, but it has a bit too much orange-juice-concentrate flavor (remember Sunny Delight?). Though it's a bit more like a screwdriver than a margarita, we liked this mix. Now, can they make a straight-lime one? (Available online, $14)
If you're looking for nontraditional flavors, choose the deliciously tart-and-fruity Mango version over the way-too-sweet Pineapple version.
Freshies Cocktail Mixes
Freshies' Fresh Lime Margarita Mix is nicely tart, with a hint of slightly-funky orange flavor, and it's a little less syrupy-sweet than many of the others. Get it super cold (by shaking or spinning in a blender with ice) and pour refreshing margaritas by the pintful. They recommend mixing with Anejo tequila and Cointreau, which certainly brings the drink up a notch. (Available online, $6.25)
Skip the Tangerita flavor though; it tastes like canned orange juice.
We liked the sour touch in Trader Joe's margarita mix, but there's quite a bit of sweetness there too. "It's like Country Time lemonade," quipped Ed Levine, and he's about right. Keep the booze out of it and your kids could sell this stuff on the driveway. The directions on the bottle suggest you add the same amount of triple sec as tequila (an ounce of each for every two a ounces of mix), but we'd dial that down quite a bit, and dial up the mix. Three ounces of this mix with 1 ounce of tequila and 1/2 an ounce of triple sec works better.
The Simple Margarita Mix from Stirrings is made with key lime and cane sugar, and it's distinctly limey, with a bit of bitter peel on the finish. It lacks the freshness we hoped for, and the addition of "natural triple sec flavor" may be where they go wrong. It's not bad, just too sweet. An extra squeeze of lime might help. (Available online, around $8.)
Skip These For Sure
We sampled José Cuervo's Golden Margarita, which was so potent it makes you squint, with a strange aftertaste we couldn't get rid of. The Jose Cuervo Light Margarita is a little better, especially if you ice it down really well, but it's still on the sweet side, and you don't get to control (or see) how much booze is in it. The zero-calorie version is wildly sweet.
And yes, we tried Skinny Girl of Real Housewives fame. It was tart and light but bizarrely salty, with a strange off-flavor from the tequila. "This tastes oddly oniony" said one taster. Skip.