Can You Handle the Heat? Spilling the Spicy Margarita’s Secrets

Unlike the Siesta or Oaxaca Old Fashioned or even, say, the Tommy’s Margarita, it’s hard to track down a so-called Bartender Zero for the Spicy Margarita’s creation. In a certain sense, it was a drink created by the entirety of the bartending community merely by responding to customer demand. And that’s surely one reason it remains one of the most ubiquitous and enduring cocktails in America today.

Like much of the modern agave scene, you have no choice but to start with Julio Bermejo, the iconoclastic owner of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco.

As early as the turn of this millenium, Bermejo, the famed creator of the orange liqueur-lacking, agave nectar-having Tommy’s Margarita began infusing blanco tequila with habanero peppers. We were still in the heyday of cheap, artificially flavored spirits (think: cupcake-flavored vodka) and fresh infusions were seen as a more upscale, albeit flavorful, way of doing things.

The modern hot sauce revolution was likewise in its nascent days — skyrocketing Scoville sauces had first begun appearing in the mid-1990s — inspiring a sort of “how hot can you handle?” machismo culture. Thus, if a Tommy’s customer was able to slug four shots of Bermejo’s homemade habanero tequila, their name would be forever enshrined at Tommy’s. But it certainly wasn’t for everybody… not just yet, anyway.

“Don’t be afraid to sample something new,” wrote Mix magazine in 2008, touting Bermejo’s huge collection of 100 percent agave spirits. “Unless, of course, he offers you his homemade habanero-infused tequila.” That same year, a Los Angeles-based food blogger likewise warned about trying the infusion: “Don’t. Seriously. I did it so you don’t have to.” While another customer told Time magazine, “I wanted to call 911. They could use it at Cape Canaveral.”

And yet, Bermejo was clearly onto something. Soon, other bartenders realized that if you tempered that spice with a bit of, say, lime juice and sweetener — in other words: make a Margarita — you’d have a cocktail that kicks. With this line of thinking, a buzz for spicy tequila cocktails began to reverberate throughout California and the rest of the Mexican-food-loving Southwest. Other bartenders wouldn’t necessarily use habanero-infused tequila like Bermejo — some bartenders might muddle fresh jalapeños, purée chipotles, or even add a dash or two of Tabasco — but they shared one thing in common: They needed a versatile tequila to work with.

Don Julio surely fits the bill. Remarkably, it was originally crafted in 1942 by a 17-year-old farmer from Atotonilco, Don Julio González-Frausto Estrada, who made tequila of uncompromising quality. That was unheard of in his era, leading many today to label Don Julio the world’s first luxury tequila. (It would take until the mid-1980s for it to be bottled commercially.)

Befitting its lofty status, Don Julio is ideal for sipping neat, whether Reposado, Añejo, or certainly the higher-end 1942, and Don Julio Ultimata Reserva Extra Añejo. These are all crafted using agave culled from the mineral-rich, red soil of Los Altos in the Jalisco highlands, which creates tequilas with a signature fruitiness and floral essence.

Bartenders quickly realized those attributes were ideal for mixing, especially when utilizing Don Julio’s Blanco and Reposado. The clean Blanco works splendidly with less-complicated cocktails, its vegetal notes and subtle florals pairing beautifully with mint for a Mexican take on the Mojito, or in that aforementioned Tommy’s Margarita, with the more pronounced sweet citrus notes and warming finish of Reposado working wonders in a classic Paloma. While the Añejo, aged for 18 months in American oak barrels that had previously held Don Julio’s Reposado, has a little more backbone that is able to stand up and fight against more powerful ingredients. Like, say, heat.

Meanwhile, as the cocktail renaissance grew in the 2000s and 2010s, West Coast bartenders spread their wings with brand ambassadorships, consulting gigs, or just general cocktail travel. Their love for spicy agave drinks resulted in them appearing on bar menus throughout the country, if not the world, especially in locations that already had a love affair with Mexican food and often had kitchens already stocked with jalapeños and other spicy ingredients.

Today, you no longer need to give the cocktail a catchy name. In fact, you don’t necessarily even have to see it on the menu. You just need to ask for a Spicy Margarita.


  • 1 ¼ ounces Don Julio Añejo Tequila
  • ¼ ounce orange liqueur
  • ½ ounce lime juice
  • ¼ ounce simple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
  • Garnish: lime wedge


  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add all the ingredients. Shake vigorously.
  2. Strain and serve in a rocks glass with fresh ice.
  3. Garnish with lime wedge.
  4. Salt or sugar rim optional.

This article is sponsored by Don Julio