I laugh whenever I see Boone's Farm at a liquor store. It was one of the first alcoholic beverages I tried -- a fairly common choice, apparently -- and I haven't had it since. You live, you learn!

It's unfortunate that the legal drinking age coincides with a period in life where money is usually tight, because that means early experimentation is largely done with bottom-shelf liquor (though that might be too charitable of a description for Boone's). That, in turn, leads to aversions and preferences that aren't necessarily the most accurate.

"Gin tastes like pine trees!" Well, cheap gin often does, just like cheap vodka can bring to mind paint stripper. And I'll never forget when a roommate of mine bought a bottle of inexpensive whiskey and proceeded to make a series of cocktails that all tasted, somehow, like meat.

I wasn't the biggest fan of tequila until a friend and I went to a restaurant and got some top-shelf margaritas on special. And you know what? Good tequila is good!

But that only solved half my problem with most margaritas. For a drink that's supposed to be full of lemon and lime punch, they too often veer into sickeningly sweet territory, which is especially true of store-bought mixes.

So I started hunting for a recipe, and I hit pay dirt. Full of flavor but not too saccharine, the Best Fresh Margaritas are my go-to drink in the summer (or, like now, when I'm desperately trying to pretend summer isn't winding down).

There's only one little catch: you need to start the process a day ahead of time.

I know planning ahead is hard -- I'm the sort of person who puts cake layers in the freezer because I need to get it frosted right now and there is no time for air cooling.

But believe me, it's worth it. I've had these with the daylong steep, the minimum steep, and with the zest omitted altogether. While they're all quite drinkable, the quality and depth of flavor really does decline as you shortchange the meld time.

The other key component is the tequila itself. You're looking for something with a label that says it's made of 100 percent agave -- that means it's the good stuff. You might be familiar with blanco and anejo, which are unaged and barrel-aged tequila, respectively; reposado splits the difference. (I've read it's the best for shots, if you're unsure what to do with the rest of the bottle.) If all that sounds Greek, or, um, Spanish to you, I'm sure someone at your friendly neighborhood liquor store will be happy to point you in the right direction.

With your hooch secured and juices well-steeped, assembly is a snap: measure, shake and pour. All you need to add is a chair on the deck and a gentle breeze.

The Best Fresh Margaritas

Makes about 1 quart, serving 4 to 6

4 teaspoons grated lime zest

1/2 cup lime juice from 2 to 3 medium limes

4 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1/2 cup lemon juice from 2 to 3 medium lemons

1/4 cup superfine sugar

pinch table salt

2 cups crushed ice

1 cup 100 percent agave tequila, preferably reposado

1 cup triple sec

Combine lime zest and juice, lemon zest and juice, sugar, and salt in large liquid measuring cup; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until flavors meld, 4 to 24 hours. (If you need to serve the drinks immediately, omit the zests altogether and forget the steep, but the flavor will suffer.)

Divide 1 cup crushed ice between 4 or 6 margarita or double old-fashioned glasses. Strain juice mixture into 1-quart pitcher or cocktail shaker. Add tequila, Triple Sec, and remaining crushed ice; stir or shake until thoroughly combined and chilled, 20 to 60 seconds. Strain into ice-filled glasses; serve immediately.

Chef's notes: You can convert these into Fresh Raspberry Margaritas by swapping in 1 cup of fresh berries for the zests; instead of letting it steep, put the juices, sugar, salt, and berries in a food processor and blend until smooth. Strain that mixture into your pitcher or cocktail shaker and add the tequila, 1/2 cup triple sec and 1/2 cup Chambord or other raspberry liquor. I've yet to try this, being the citrus fiend that I am, but it sounds pretty good.

Source: America's Test Kitchen


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