On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy chats with Erick Castro about America’s favorite cocktail: the Margarita. With its perfect balance of lime juice, sweetener, orange liqueur, and tequila, it’s no surprise that the modern classic cocktail is so popular.
For Castro, the Margarita paid his bills for years. Now, the award-winning bartender and host of the “Bartender At Large” podcast shares his tips and tricks for making the best Marg from the comfort of your own home. With plenty of riffs thanks to the drink’s simplicity and flexibility, the possibilities are endless.
Tune in to learn more about the Margarita.
Erick Castro’s Classic Margarita Recipe
- 1 ½ ounces blanco tequila, such as Olmeca Altos
- ¾ ounce Cointreau
- ¾ ounce fresh lime juice
- ½ ounce agave syrup (3 parts agave nectar to 2 parts water)
- Add all ingredients to a shaker with Kold Draft ice cubes.
- Shake until cold.
- Dump cocktail and ice into a cold, salt-rimmed rocks glass.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” I’m your host, Tim McKirdy. Erick Castro, welcome to the show.
Erick Castro: Brother, it’s a pleasure to be here.
T: Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m excited to chat with you about the Margarita, which is going to be a big one for us. But I will say this beforehand, there are a little bit of nerves on my side here, because we’ve had it once or twice before, but you are the host of a fantastic podcast yourself, too. So I’m feeling under pressure here in the host’s seat today. So go easy on me now.
E: I just need to remind myself that I’m the guest and I’m not the host, so I’ll do my best to pipe down and be quiet.
T: Not at all. The whole point here is that you get to take more of the lead today. So today’s topic on “Cocktail College” is the Margarita. What can we say about this drink historically? Or at least modern day, this is one of the most popular cocktails in the world. I’ve seen a study that American drinkers are even willing to pay more for their Margaritas versus other cocktails. That’s how much they love it. So this is an incredibly popular drink. Within your incredible experience behind the bars, is that something you see? Any initial thoughts to get us going here?
E: You’re going to have to stop me because I’m going to pull the entire 45 minutes to talk about this one aspect of the Margarita. It’s captured such a massive mind share of the global drinking population because it’s not only delicious and flexible in regards to the occasion that you drink it, but it’s almost impossible to mess up. By that I mean, the recipe is intensely forgiving. You can really muck it up, and it’ll still taste pretty good. For instance, a lot of other classic cocktails like the Last Word, if you don’t make it right the drink is completely out of balance. Even something like a Piña Colada is easy to make too sweet. A Mojito is a little more flexible as well. But with something like a Margarita, you could put orange juice in it, You could hit it with a splash of Sprite, you can do lemon juice, lime juice, or any permutation you could think of. You can forget an ingredient. You can forget the triple sec, and it’ll still work. Look at the Tommy’s Margarita. It’s every bit as delicious as the classic and they completely left out an ingredient. If you were to make a Manhattan and forget one of the ingredients, it would be utterly forgettable. You make a Mojito and forget the mint and it’s utterly forgettable.
T: That goes back to your initial point. I wonder if that has been the fuel for the popularity of the Margarita, the fact that you can f*ck it up. Or that you don’t need to be entirely and highly skilled to get a pretty good version of it out there. Therefore, it can be made in a ton of bars and it can be made in bars of all different levels. And it remains this refreshing, fruity, wonderful cocktail.
E: It’s always pretty tasty. As long as you don’t forget the tequila, you can honestly replace any of the other ingredients. What other drink can you say that about?
T: This is a drink that can be made to varying standards and still be good. But what about a perfectly executed Margarita? Because that’s what we’re all about at “Cocktail College.” What are you looking for when it comes to the ideal version of this drink?
E: You’re looking for balance. You’re not trying to hide the flavors of the tequila. When someone’s newer to the Margarita, a newer bartender or home bartender, they’re trying to mask it with citrus and fruit purées and stuff like that. It kind of loses what makes it so beautiful in the first place, and that’s the agave. So you want to make sure that you’re showcasing the agave. Tequila is the lead singer, the star of the show. The other ingredients are like the bass player and the drums and the guitars. But at the end of the day, the tequila is the star. It’s the Diana Ross of the Margarita. All the other ingredients in harmony will showcase it. You could say that about most classic cocktails, but I feel like with the Margarita, it’s even more important. Especially because the Margarita is actually the vehicle where most people try to kill off for the first time. Aside from taking shots with a little bit of salt and lime. There are so many people out there who honestly aren’t even tequila lovers, they don’t even consider themselves tequila aficionados, but the Margarita is all they drink.
T: Yeah, I would totally agree.
T: These are all really backing up some of the initial points that we’ve made, and I completely agree with you there. Not only is it that relatively few people graduate onto other tequila cocktails, even if they do like other cocktails.
E: There’s no reason to.
T: There are few other modern classics with tequila that do make it worthwhile to step away from the Marg.
E: The closest would be the Paloma. And that is a distant, distant second to the point where I would think most people have ever heard of it, aside from people who love craft cocktails. But the thing is, those people don’t get bored with drinking that one cocktail because the Margarita is subject to endless permutations. You could have a strawberry Margarita, a blended Margarita, a Tommy’s Margarita, a Cadillac Margarita. There are so many permutations that you could go to a tequila bar and drink nothing but Margaritas there and never have the same one twice.
T: The Margarita has become a brand within itself.
E: Yes, it’s practically a category.
BREAKING DOWN THE CLASSIC MARGARITA
T: Those are all things that I want to get into soon. Let’s break down the classic first in that ideal iteration, starting with the ingredients and with that tequila. What are you thinking about when you’re making this cocktail? Most folks will know there are three or four styles of tequila. What are you going for and what are you looking for from the particular bottle that you’re reaching for?
E: If I’m reaching for one, I’m reaching for a blanco. I pretty much exclusively use blanco to make Margaritas to the point where I don’t remember the last time I didn’t. Maybe you could put a reposado in there. But for the most part, I’m exclusively blanco. And I like it to be a little bit more fiery, because if you’re using something a little too refined, it’s going to get lost when you add fresh lime juice, agave nectar, triple sec, or whatever you add to the mix. You don’t want to use something that’s too refined. You’re using a 750-milliliter bottle that’s $75 . You don’t need to put that tequila in there. I recommend that people use something around the $25 mark when making a Margarita, because you want that spice that works better with the cocktail.
T: When you’re talking about spice, what do you mean?
E: I didn’t necessarily mean the literal sense, more in the sense of something with a little kick.
T: Exactly. Where does that flavor stand in your head? Are we talking like the vegetal, peppery notes from it? From raw agave versus cooked agave when you think of that spectrum of flavors? And are there any bottles at that price point that you would recommend or reach for when making this?
T: I think Olmeca Altos almost in itself tastes a little bit like a Margarita, and I’ve said this to people before and handed it to them. I get that real vegetal, almost jalapeño, briny note to it. But there’s almost a limey finish.
E: Also a bit of salt to it.
T: There is. When I drink it on its own, I already know what I’m doing with this. And this is the preview of the drink; I think it’s wonderful.
E: It’s wild when you think about the cocktail and why I think it works so well, because blanco will taste like lime peel and have the solidity to it. Which gives it a taste of salty lime already. So it almost tastes like a Margarita already with the citrus notes that you would get from the fresh lime and Curaçao.
T: These are factors from the flavor profile that you start to lose with the influence of oak, reposado, and añejo. What about reposado, though?
E: It can work. If you’re using one that hasn’t spent quite a lot of time in the barrel, if it’s just around the two-month mark, you should be fine. I probably wouldn’t use one that had been aged for 10 or 11 months. Honestly, you never know. There are always exceptions. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but there are always exceptions.
T: Also with blanco itself, you’re going to get some bottlings that lean way too much towards vanilla sweetness. I’m getting that from other components of the drink. And this is not really natural for tequila. I mean, people love them. It’s fine, whatever. But it’s not the perfect candidate for this drink.
E: I definitely wouldn’t reach for an extra añejo or something. That’s $150 a bottle, or actually more like $250 nowadays. You’d be a fool if you put that in a Margarita.
T: The category of tequila itself, like you said, is going wild with these limited-edition bottlings, unicorn bottles, it is going crazy. It’s partly thanks to the popularity of the Marg, which has been a vehicle for the category.
E: It is everybody’s introduction to tequila, and everyone’s introduction to agave spirits in Mexican distilling. It’s the ultimate gateway drug in regard to agave spirits. It’s wild.
T: Yet so accessible, too, it’s dangerous. So moving on, then to the next component, which would be our triple sec, orange liqueur, Curaçao. What are you looking for there and what are some of your considerations? What are some of your preferences for this aspect of the cocktail?
E: I’m going to come out and say it, the Cadillac Margarita gets a bad rep. I like to make them almost Tommy’s style, and then a float of Grand Marnier on top. I think they’re delicious. I’ll dare anyone who thinks otherwise to give it a try.
T: Can you describe that for anyone listening who’s not particularly familiar with this riff on the drink?
E: The Cadillac Margarita was one of the drinks that got really popular at El Torito in the ’70s and ’80s. I know it was really popular to make them with 1800. I don’t know if that was the original tequila used in it. But the way I was taught to make them was that it had to be 1800, sour mix, shaken, salt rim, and then a float of Grand Marnier on top.
T: Interesting. That’s such a wacky combination right there. But popular.
E: Twenty years ago, if you made somebody a Margarita and didn’t grab 1800 tequila, they’d be like, “Whoa, hey, I ordered a Cadillac.” That did have a bit of color to it, so I think maybe that’s why a lot of people would reach for a reposado or something just out of habit and mix them without realizing.
T: The sour mix as well. These are two four-letter words that we’re talking about in modern lexicon, but incredibly popular. Most often we do see Cointreau being used. Is this a component of the drink that you care too much about when you are making the Margarita in its classic form?
E: Cointreau works great in Margarita. This might be sacrilegious to a lot of folks, but being from California, having lived in San Francisco, and coming up in the craft cocktail scene in that era, I tend to drink Tommy’s Margarita the most when I’m making one for myself.
E: Tommy’s Margarita is generally my go-to. Our house Margarita is a mixture of the classic with Cointreau and agave nectar. So it’s almost a traditional Tommy’s Margarita where it’s a little bit of Cointreau, a little bit of agave syrup, lime, and shaken.
T: Fantastic. So that aspect of the drink is clearly not something that you think it’s sacrilegious to get rid of. But essentially, in its classic form, we’re bringing it in there for a form of sweetness and a little bit of fruitiness with flavor. Of course, we’re adding acidity and citrus via lime. Anything you want to share about that lime?
E: I would rather have a Margarita with fresh lime juice and mixto tequila than a really nice blanco with sour mix because that cocktail gets its vibrancy and comes to life with the fresh lime juice. Without fresh lime juice, the drink is almost not worth drinking.
T: That’s so interesting. Anything in terms of the freshness of your lime juice or other considerations? Any tips out there for us, anything we should be thinking about when we’re preparing our limes for this or any other drinks?
E: You want to be as fresh as possible. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but where I sowed my oats in regards to craft cocktails was at a tequila bar in Sacramento about 15 years ago. Before this, I had already been bartending and had worked in restaurants and nightclubs, bowling alleys, you name it. I thought I was this hotshot bartender. I thought I knew everything there was to know about bartending. But I didn’t know anything about craft cocktails, and I was so stupid. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know anything about craft cocktails. So when I started working for the tequila bar, all of a sudden like, “Oh, hey, here’s a line press and then here’s agave nectar and some blanco. You’re going to be making Tommy’s Margaritas.” Wait, what? I’m supposed to squeeze the juice out of a lime? Are we making ceviche or something? You guys are crazy. Then I made my first one and I straw tasted it and was like, oh my God, this is divine.
T: A whole new world.
E: It completely blew my mind wide open. And then at that point, I was like, what else don’t I know about? What about the fresh lemon juice and fresh orange juice? What’s house-made Grenadine? Why would I stir a Manhattan? Then I just nosedived into the world of craft cocktails after that and never went back. It was all because of Tommy’s Margarita. In many ways, the Margarita made my career.
T: That’s so interesting.
E: I made them all day. I worked in a really popular tequila bar where we would do $25,000 worth of $9 Margaritas.
T: Oh my god. That’s wild.
E: That doesn’t count food. That was just Margaritas with the occasional Mojito or something sprinkled in.
TOMMY’S MARGARITA & OTHER RIFFS
T: Let’s move on to the Tommy’s then. This is kind of geeky, but is the Tommy’s Margarita actually a Margarita? Because if we’re breaking down the Margarita into the classic families of cocktails, the Margarita is a daisy and the Tommy’s is a sour. It almost shares more in common with a Daiquiri than a traditional Marg.
E: Here’s where it gets controversial. Is the Margarita a daisy? Margarita means “daisy” in Spanish. For those out there who don’t know, the daisy is a very loosely defined style of sour. It’s a sweetening agent generally in the form of yellow Chartreuse, triple sec, Curaçao, raspberry, or Grenadine. It often had a splash of soda, but not always. Sometimes it was on crushed ice, sometimes served up, it was a little more flexible in that respect. But the Margarita is a daisy. Tommy’s Margarita, which is a Margarita, is not a daisy. I’ve often heard people describe it as a tequila Daiquiri.
T: It is. What if I went into the bar and just said to whoever’s behind the bar, “Hey, yeah, can I get a tequila Daiquiri, please? And feel free to sweeten it with agave syrup.”
E: Since a sweetener is not flavor neutral, that puts it more on par with a honey syrup or a Grenadine, rather than just a straight simple syrup.
T: We’re breaching uncharted territory here. But that’s something that I wanted to ask you going into the conversation about Tommy’s.
E: If you made a Daiquiri with agave nectar, not a flavor-neutral one but a proper-quality agave nectar, would that still be a Daiquiri? Or would it be a Daiquiri variation? If you serve that to somebody who is a Daiquiri purist, would they ask why you put unprocessed agave nectar in there?
T: At that point, Daiquiri enthusiasts are saying no.
E: Yeah, that’s what I mean. The thing is, Tommy’s Margarita is not a daisy.
T: So it’s this whole other style that stands on its own? Would you agree that within the modern-day industry, is that the version that’s preferred by the majority? Clearly, you lean more towards that than the classic style. But would you say that’s become the case? Can you talk us through your preparation of that drink and anything you’re thinking about with the agave syrup?
E: I used to make so many of these that when I would put them in the hand press, I would never even pull the lime out. I would add the lime, squeeze it, and pop it open. And the lime wedge would fly three feet and go to the trash can behind me. It was just a reflex. After a couple of weeks doing that, you’re making most of them, missing some. Soon, you could nail the trash can from 30 feet away without even looking. So Tommy’s Margarita, we made it in agave syrup. That was about three parts agave nectar to two parts hot water. Then we would squeeze half a lime, you’re aiming for about three-quarter ounce agave syrup, and a couple ounces of tequila. Shake it, then dump. Actually at this point, we weren’t dumping. We had what was referred to as hotel deli ice. So we would shake, and then strain over new ice. If I’m making this with a cold draft, I dump it. I have a party pour.
T: What’s the thinking behind that? For anyone listening who is not familiar with the term, you’re using the same ice in the drink that you’ve shaken the cocktail to chill it.
E: The party pour, it sounds nicer that way, you’re shaking and pouring out the contents. For that drink, it helps to have the ice cubes a little bit beat up when it’s served. If you try to fine strain over brand new ice cubes, it just doesn’t work as well.
T: Yep, it’s a punchy cocktail.
E: You need to have the dilution already going. Every few years, people start talking about food pairing with cocktails. It becomes hot and popular, and then it kind of fades away. It’s cyclical. There are very few drinks that are made to pair with food. The Margarita is one of them; it’s perfect for serving with Mexican food, obviously. It’s acidic, so it can cut through fatty food. It can stand up to Mexican flavors, which tend to be very bold. And it can match that and compare that and can also match the spice of the food. I’m a big believer that you can’t separate the cuisine from the culture and expect to understand both of them. And I feel like the Margarita perfectly and beautifully exemplifies that.
T: That’s such a great point. It also ticks the box of the Tommy’s versus the classic Marg, which has a little bit more body, a little bit more flavor. That does lend itself more to the cuisine. I’m just imagining having one in my hand right now with that ice in there. It’s a wonderful combination.
E: You’re sitting down at a table, you got a big plate of carne asadas, tortillas, beans, rice out in front of you, and a Margarita in your right hand, you are in a good place. You’ve made key life decisions.
T: You can just keep both of them coming.
E: It’s a perfect example of a drink representing the culture that spawned it.
T: Let’s look back at those services briefly. Are you serving up the party pour for the Tommy’s and for the classic Margarita? What about salt rims or spice rims on glasses? How do you feel about it?
E: I am a fan of the salt rim; you’re turning it into a sports drink at that point. You’re replacing electrolytes, Mexico’s hot, a lot of the country is desert and coastal. There’s something nice about having a refreshing drink with a little bit of salt that you can taste periodically throughout your drink.
T: Do you think this also speaks to the fact of the Margarita not being too precious, either?
E: No, it’s not a fussy cocktail.
T: Imagine you talk about a salt or flavored rim with a Daiquiri enthusiast. People go into such detail to find the balance within the glass there. It’s like, what am I doing?
E: The Daiquiri is very unforgiving. Partly because it’s not served over ice, the classic Daiquiri at least. Since it’s not served over ice, more of the flaws become a little more glaring. If it’s a touch too sweet and it’s served up, it’ll become cloying really quickly. But if the Margarita is a touch sweet, it’s over ice, so it’s picking up a little dilution to loosen up. And it was garnished with the lime wedge which you can squeeze and drop in. Voila! The drink is fixed.
T: A little pinch of salt as well. That’s always making everything a little bit better, right?
E: You can free-pour Margaritas all day long and they’re always going to be pretty good. I’ve seen recipes for a Margarita that calls for equal parts. And guess what? They’re actually still pretty good. Would I order a second one? Not necessarily. Am I going to make it like that at home? Yeah, but it’s not bad.
T: So what about other riffs? We’ve gone deep into the Tommy’s. One that I really want to hear about as well is the frozen Margarita. I don’t go for frozen cocktails too often, but this is one that I will try and put the effort into at home to perfect. How do you feel about frozen Margs, and do you have any tips when it comes to creating a very potent but refreshing version of that drink?
E: Well, that’s the thing about frozen Margaritas, and it’s something people need to come to terms with and become okay with. As I mentioned earlier, the closer a drink gets to room temp, the sweeter it appears. And the reverse works as well. The colder it gets, the dryer it feels in regards to our perception of the sweetness. The best example is, when you’re eating ice cream, it doesn’t necessarily seem too sweet. But if you allow it to melt, then it can become very, very sweet. Which is why a lot of little kids will take their spoon and whip it, they’ll introduce kinetic force until it melts, and then they eat it when it’s melted. Their perception of it is sweeter. The reason why I mentioned that is because frozen cocktails need to be a little bit sweeter. You need to add a little more sugar to them. And it’s always surprising for a lot of people. For the Tommy’s Margarita, I mentioned two or three quarters, three quarters. If you were to serve it frozen, it would just taste like pure booze and citrus. You would have to kick up that agave syrup. I might even throw in a splash of orange juice to kind of stretch it out a little bit.
T: Nice. And what about freezing lime juice as cubes and using that as half of your ice before? Is that something you do?
E: I don’t know, you might make it really tart.
T: Just in terms of trying to fight the dilution there. Or maybe freeze the orange juice rather than using ice cubes.
E: We used to have a cocktail at Raised By Wolves that was essentially a sparkling Margarita which had lime sorbet in it. Oh my god, it was so good.
T: A sparkling Margarita? Tell us about that.
E: It was called the Baller’s Margarita. Before we would juice our limes, we would take all the zest from them. Then, we made a homemade lime sorbet, and took a little bit of citrus, blanco tequila, Licor 43, some of that sorbet, and Champagne and put it in a blender.
T: Would that retain some of its fizz?
E: Yes. Oh my god. It was in a flash blender — the Hamilton Beach ones used at tropical bars and tiki bars — so it was only hit for two or three seconds just to bring everything to a solution. So it still had the fizz.
T: That sounds amazing.
E: Oh, my man. It was absolutely lovely.
T: The Margarita is forgiving, but Champagne is not somewhere I would have gone in my mind. But now that you mention that, I need to try that.
E: It was wonderful. I said sorbet, but it was actually a sherbet. It was lime zest, orange zest, caster sugar, a little bit of cream, and orange flower water. It was made in house. It was delicious. That played the role of the citrus and sweetener in the drink.
T: When it comes to operating bars and looking at the other side of things, which are managing your bottom line and making sure that people are ordering a wide variety of drinks from the menus, does the very nature of having Margarita in the name ensure that a certain percentage of people are just going to try this cocktail? No matter what’s in it.
E: People will try if it has “Margarita” in it. I think that’s the case with pretty much any classic for the most part, especially with the Margarita, because people have a fairly articulate version of what they’re going to get. If you look back 15, 10 years ago, how many Margarita variations there were in regards to chain restaurants? I came up in chain restaurants. I remember making Italian Margaritas with Tuaca. I remember making Jägeritas.
T: Olive Garden uses amaretto in theirs.
E: Yeah, 100 percent. It always sells because you’re taking these flavors that necessarily weren’t expected to work in the drink, but they always do. Because the Margarita is a template and formula that is intensely forgiving. I’m going to come right out and say it: Part of the reason why it’s so forgiving is because it’s not that creative of a cocktail. I mean, it’s barely not a Daiquiri.
Erick Castro’s Classic Margarita Recipe
T: No one sat down in a craft cocktail setting to come up with this drink. These are ingredients that work together naturally. No one was thinking too hard about it. And they came up with a formula, and it slaps. It’s amazing. What is your preferred recipe for a classic Margarita and your ratios?
E: For a classic, I’ll do an ounce-and-a-half of blanco, three-quarter Cointreau, three-quarter lime, and then a half- ounce of agave nectar.
T: Interesting, and that’s the three-to-two syrup that you mentioned earlier.
E: Yes, and then I shake it, party pour, and salt rim.
T: So you’re not serving your classic version in one of those elaborate glasses? Because the Margarita is one of the few drinks out there that does have its own glass.
E: We used to have these cactus glasses at Polite that we used to serve our Margaritas in, and people ate them up. But people steal them. All of you out there, it’s not OK to steal from bars just because you bought a drink. It’s not OK to steal a $10 glass because you had a $10 drink. I imagine your listeners here would never do such a thing. But there are less scrupulous people out there.
T: Just go back to the bar and visit again if you’re enjoying drinking out of that glass. Visit the bar again.
E: Most likely, they’ll sell them. Just say you like the glass and ask how much they are.
T: That’s awesome. So Erick, any other thoughts here that you’ve got on the Margarita? Is there anything else you wanted to chat about today that we haven’t already gotten into?
E: Honestly, I’m just warming up. This episode could be another hour and a half. The Margarita is a drink that I have spent so much of my life thinking about and making. For a long time, the Margarita paid my rent.
T: That’s awesome. There are those T-shirts out there that say “vodka sodas pay the bills.” It’s probably more accurate to say the Marg.
E: Yeah, it is the Marg.
T: Share some other musings on the Marg.
E: Here’s the thing. Remember how I said there are people out there who aren’t necessarily tequila drinkers, but they’re strictly Margarita drinkers? There are a lot of people out in the world, we deal with it as bartenders, they are one-spirit people. You’ll have people who are just “all I drink is vodka,” and in your mind it’s like, whatever, you’re boring. Or someone’s like, “Oh, all I drink is Scotch.” Whatever, you’re pretentious. But then you meet people who say, “Oh darlin’, all I drink is tequila.” If you only drink tequila, that’s OK, because those people out there know how to have a good time.
T: Yeah, you’re turning up to the party if that’s the go-to. Any other thoughts, anything to note that we haven’t covered here on the Marg, or anything else that’s inspired?
E: Yeah, I worked at Chili’s for a week, for five days.
T: How is that? We touched upon the chain drinks, and Chili’s Marg is the most notable of all. Tell us, what was that like?
E: I was there for the staff meal, it was legit. I was eating fajitas on my break. I got hired there, and I also got hired at the tequila bar in Sacramento called Zócalo. I got hired at both of those places at the same time. So I was doing my trainings at the same time. And at one place, I’m learning about agave and how it’s harvested and how it’s turned into tequila. And I’m making Tommy’s Margaritas. At the other place, I’m serving certain fajitas and grabbing sour mix with an ounce and a quarter of mixto in the drink. Within those five days, I was like, “No, my heart is in this one already.” Because I had already worked in chains for seven years. I needed to go in a different direction, and I’ve never looked back.
Getting to Know Erick Castro
T: Erick, it’s been really cool. How do you feel about heading into the final segment of the podcast, our stock questions?
E: Let’s do it, man.
T: Are you ready for this? Feeling good?
T: As I mentioned at the top, we have had one or two folks on before who are also podcasts hosts. But this is the first time that I’m offered the opportunity to sit down and chat on this show with a fellow L.A. Spirits Awards judge. That’s awesome, and I just want to shout out to the family. They’re wonderful people.
E: I had such a good time doing that.
T: How great is it?
E: It was absolutely wonderful. I just hope next year, we can do it in person.
T: That’s the plan, I’m looking forward to it. Let’s head into the questions, Erick Castro. I’m going to hit you with the first one here. What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
E: This is an easy one. When it comes to my home bar, it’s bourbon, without a doubt. I don’t really drink at home that much, so when I do collect stuff for the house, I want it to be stuff that I can’t really get anywhere else. I’m not just going to have a regular bottle that you could just pick up at retail. So I have lots of private barrels at my house. I can’t even keep track of them, I should probably do some form of inventory check.
T: That’s the bartender in you there. Are there any particular distilleries that you lean towards or bottlings that you’ve had recently?
E: There are so many. I was going through my stock recently, trying to set stuff up to display. I found a Weller full proof that was a private barrel from 2014.
T: That’s an exceptional bourbon, and one that gets a lot of love if you can find it these days.
E: I was talking about it with somebody at the bar and a customer overheard and was like, “Oh my God, what do you want for it?” I don’t really want to sell it, I figure I’ll just crack it open one of these days.
T: I have that rule whereby, if I ever get a special bottle at home, the first thing I do is as I open and I pour a little bit. You never want to be tempted to just leave something for too long, right? This isn’t wine; it’s not changing in the bottle. Just get it open, and make sure that you’re taking care of that spirit.
E: I generally do that. I’m a big believer in that because you can get hit by a truck tomorrow. Who wants to die with those great, great bottles? But I have so many. Every time I turn around, there’s just more stuff showing up. When you’re on this side of the industry, it just shows up. And it’s like, where am I going to put this new bottle?
T: Tough trouble to have.
E: Someone has to do it, it’s a tough job. You all can sleep safe knowing that you’re in good hands.
T: What about your professional back bars? If it comes to looking at that, which style or category are you leaning into most there? That’s always dependent upon our guests and the kind of bars they run, but I’m interested to hear that, too.
E: Honestly, I like to invest more in liqueurs and modifiers rather than spirits. So much of what we do is cocktails, so if I get 10 new bourbons for the bar, it doesn’t really expand what we can do. But if I pick up six new liqueurs and four new bitters, then the potential for what we can create expands. I don’t necessarily have the best self-control, so most likely, I will buy the 10 bottles of bourbon and the liqueurs and bitters as well. It’s hard for me to say no when something tastes delicious. But I do prefer to invest in liqueurs, cordials, and bitters because then it can really expand what we can create.
T: Question two here for you: What ingredient or two is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
E: Crushed ice and pebble ice.
T: Talk us through that.
E: So many bars are missing opportunities to sell drinks on pebble ice. Not only is pebble ice really good environmentally because it’s one of the most sustainable forms of ice, it’s also incredibly efficient. You can freeze pebbles really, really quickly. If you’re not familiar, it’s like that little nugget ice that you get at like Sonic or Coffee Bean. It works so great with Mojitos, so great with a Bramble. It works great with so many different drinks. And it’s incredibly energy efficient, and the machines aren’t very expensive. They use very little electricity, and there’s a novelty to it. I honestly don’t understand why TGI Friday’s or Cheesecake Factory hasn’t figured out how to incorporate it into their program or why it hasn’t blown up in a bigger sense.
T: Love to hear it. We definitely haven’t had that one before, so I love to hear that take. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
E: I’ll tell you two pieces of advice I got. Years ago, Johnny Sander told me that in this industry, you’re always being interviewed. I don’t think he meant interviewed for a podcast, but rather interviewed for a job. He reminded me to always conduct yourself professionally, tell people “thank you” when they invite you to events, give 100 percent when you’re working at an event, don’t show up late, make sure you’re not getting sloppy drunk when you’re at industry parties, etc. Because you’re always being interviewed and you’re always being gauged for your level of professionalism in our industry, so I’ve always taken that to heart.
T: It’s a small, close-knit industry, despite how many people work in it.
E: I’ve always tried to instill that in my staff. I tell them when you’re in another bar, you conduct yourself as though you’re representing us. If you’re in a bar across town or you’re at a dive bar, you have to remember that you’re a guest in their house, and you act accordingly.
T: That’s smart.
E: Another piece of advice I got before I even started bartending, this was when I was waiting tables, the lead bartender at this place told me “a bartender is a bullsh*t artist, just remember.” That’s always stuck with me. Then he told me a story about how somebody came in and ordered a Purple Monkey. He asked this customer where she was when she had it, because she knew the recipe, and she said it was in the Caribbean. He’s like, “Oh, it’s in the Caribbean, there’s probably pineapple and rum and it’s purple, so a bit of Chambord.” He served it to her, and she said it was the best one she’d ever had. I just always thought that was funny.
T: That’s so funny, and it’s true. That’s hospitality in general; it’s just about finding solutions. There are no problems, only solutions.
E: I’ve done that for people, but I will flat-out tell them. I won’t lie. I usually suss it out using a little detective work. Now we have the internet, so we don’t have to do that anymore.
T: Before the modern era, when a bar ran out of white Zinfandel, what did a bartender do? He reached for the house white and a splash of grenadine. Wonderful; everyone’s happy.
E: And people say, “Oh my God, that’s the best white Zin I ever had.
T: What have you had to compare it to? Well, there you go. Fourth question for you: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, current or prior, what would it be?
E: It would be the Buena Vista in San Francisco for an Irish coffee in about 90 years.
E: In a really long time from now, I do want to emphasize, yeah,
T: It’s not happening tomorrow. There was a San Francisco journalist who popularized the Irish coffee there.
E: I forgot the gentleman’s name.
T: I do, too. It’s in a VinePair article. Check it out, guys. You can google it. Fantastic. Final question for you for today’s show: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
E: A really big Margarita, so it would take me a long time to get through and I would die at a later date.
T: I’m a big fan of a pitcher of Margs.
E: Well, I have to finish this before I die. It’s my last drink, y’all.
E: The Margarita is on my mind after this episode, but also, that might be my answer anyway. In any case, it’s a perfect drink for a last cocktail.
T: I think that’s a great point. All of the things we’ve mentioned today: flavorful, fruity, the riffs, it’s forgiving. What’s not to like about the Margarita? Well, Erick, thank you so much for joining us on today’s episode. Let’s grab a virtual Marg from the East Coast to the West Coast there.
E: Yeah. Absolutely, brother. That sounds amazing.
T: Awesome. Thank you.
If you enjoy listening to the show anywhere near as much as we enjoy making it, go ahead and hit subscribe, and please leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts — whether that’s Apple, Spotify, or Stitcher. And please tell your friends.
Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.