Why the Margarita Has Been the Most Important Cocktail of 2020

Why the Margarita Has Been the Most Important Cocktail of 2020

Margarita is a drink that needs no introduction. The tart and tangy mix of fresh lime juice, tequila, and orange liqueur consistently rank as America’s favorite cocktail and among the most popular in the world. But while interest in the drink typically surges around Cinco de Mayo and in the hot summer months, in 2020 the Margarita has reached new heights.

The popularity of the Margarita has not just proven pandemic-proof but has surged throughout the year. Since the start of the pandemic, two of its core ingredients have helped fuel holiday-season-like retail sales, as increasing numbers of consumers turn to home mixology. Companies that offer innovative ready-to-drink (RTD) solutions are cashing in, too, with a vast choice of high-quality options available for those who don’t feel like grabbing a jigger and shaker.

As bars and restaurants operate under relaxed alcohol regulations, the Margarita has also become a staple on-to-go cocktail menus. Offering momentary relief from the pandemic, the cocktail satisfies a consumer yearning for nostalgia. After all, what could be more familiar than the nation’s favorite cocktail?

The Perfect to-go Cocktail

“Without question, the Margarita is the most popular drink right now. I’ve noticed it at almost every bar I’ve gone to in the last four months,” says Naren Young, bar director at Manhattan’s The Orchard Townhouse.

Young offers multiple reasons why the Margarita has stood out as the drink of the pandemic. Familiarity is a key factor as consumers seek comfort from their food and beverages, he says. Ease of preparation and versatility also play a large part. “You can have it shaken, frozen, with strawberry, pomegranate, mango — whatever you want,” Young says.

Prior to the pandemic, Margs might have been more common on dive bar menus and at casual-dining chains; but for high-end bars confined to takeaway cocktails, the Margarita makes more sense than a Manhattan or Martini, which are best enjoyed in ice-cold glassware. “With the Margarita, you can take your liberties and serve it in all sorts of different vessels,” Young says.

In New York, the sight of clear plastic containers filled with cocktails has become as common as a cold brew. But the trend has not just been confined to major cities. When Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey allowed bars and restaurants to sell takeout alcohol in March, Mexican restaurant Los Sombreros began selling drive-thru Margaritas at its Scottsdale location. “The Margarita provides 40 percent of our sales, so it gave us a huge boost that we really needed at the time,” says Colleen Riske, Los Sombreros’ co-owner.

Now that the state is open for dine-in, Los Sombreros has closed the drive-thru window. But the restaurant’s signature “Steve-a-Rita” (named after a bartender friend who concocted its recipe in 2017) remains a popular takeout choice, in both single servings and 32-ounce buckets for four. In April, Los Sombreros also converted its catering van into a Margarita delivery truck, ensuring neighborhoods throughout the city are well stocked with Steve-a-Ritas. “We look at it as an adult ice cream truck,” says Riske.

The Home Bartenders’ Drink of Choice

As well as the introduction of alcohol takeout and to-go cocktails, the coronavirus pandemic has also seen a surge in popularity of home bartending. Sales figures from retailers and delivery services suggest that the Margarita has been the cocktail of choice for those honing their skills.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, sales of tequila and cordials (a subcategory that includes orange liqueurs) have grown 66.5 percent and 44.6 percent, respectively, according to Nielsen data. Both have outpaced the growth of the overall spirits category, as well as popular summer wines like rosé and prosecco.

Delivery platform Drizly has experienced a similar trend. “Margaritas are on the rise in a big way,” says Scott Braun, Drizly’s chief marketing officer. Tequila brands Casamigos and Don Julio recently became the third and ninth best-selling brands on the platform — neither featured in the top 10 a year ago. “Pairing with these is a huge increase in a triple sec, [which] has literally doubled its share of total sales on the Drizly platform,” Braun adds.

With the temperature rising but social distancing restrictions still largely in place, the growing ranks of home bartenders may also wish to enjoy a batched cocktail outdoors with friends. And the Margarita is an ideal candidate for scaling up.

“Now is not the time for a very expensive, very complicated mixology experiment. It’s the time to make something that’s going to taste great and you’re not going to screw up,” says Maggie Hoffman, author of “Batch Cocktails: Make-Ahead Pitcher Drinks for Every Occasion.”

Those looking to scale up their Margarita recipes should take into account dilution and aeration, both of which are required, Hoffman says. One simple solution is diluting slightly with water, then refrigerating in a large container a few hours before serving. Provided there’s enough room for plenty of air, the batched Margarita can be shaken and served directly from this container. Serving over large ice cubes will also help keep the cocktail cold.

Once these minor considerations have been mastered, creative riffs can add further appeal. Hoffman suggests using mezcal instead of tequila, or a mix of the two. Savory ingredients like basil leaves, chili pepper, or cumin can also add complexity. And those wishing to simplify the cocktail can replace orange liqueur with agave syrup, in a version called Tommy’s Margarita

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Of course, not everyone has spent the pandemic practicing home mixology, but that hasn’t halted Margarita’s rise. High-quality, pre-made mixers, and RTDs, along with left-field innovations have made the cocktail accessible to all American drinkers. In fact, seven of this year’s top 10-selling RTD brands on Drizly either offer Margaritas or are entirely Margarita focused.

Meanwhile, make-at-home options have gone beyond the hand-held juicer: Drinkworks is one such solution, offering Keurig-style boozy cocktail pods for at-home preparations. “Our Margarita Pods have been exceptionally popular this summer, rising to the top of our expansive beverage portfolio,” says Nathaniel Davis, Drinkworks’ CEO.

Another quick and easy solution comes via The Cocktail Cube, which offers premade frozen mixers that simply need to be shaken with liquor. The Margarita cube has been the company’s most popular flavor in 2020, accounting for more than 25 percent of its volume sales, according to founder Emily Silberman. “Right now, consumers are craving comfort, familiarity, and anything that will transport them — albeit temporarily — to pre-COVID times,” Silberman says. “The Marg is the perfect drink for that.”

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