There is nothing quite like a frigid margarita on a hot summer’s day. I’ve been sober for years, and while I don’t miss the alcohol, hangovers, or stupid ideas that flood my brain when tequila enters my system, I do miss the fresh lime juice, the smack of salt, the bitter orange tinge of triple sec, and the chill of pulverized ice.
In my younger days, I thought margaritas were just a fun, frosty way to get hammered. Only when I quit drinking did I fully appreciate the details and mechanics that make a margarita great, because trying to find a good virgin margarita is nearly impossible—most of them just taste like frozen limeade. Where’s the bitterness, the bite, the faint smoke, the sting of heat? You can’t simply drop the booze and forge onward! In a margarita, the tequila and triple sec are there for flavor, not just to make you believe you know how to break dance.
If you want to make a spirit-free margarita that reminds you of the real thing, you can either buy a bottle of zero-proof tequila alternative, or you can take a leap of faith and follow the path that I—a seasoned, sober culinary dynamo—have forged to mock-Margaritaville.
The secret to a perfect non-alcoholic margarita
Because a margarita bombards you with punchy sweet, sour, and salty flavors, you can get a little creative to replicate the bitter and smoky notes tequila and triple sec normally bring to the party. I know that this might sound crazy, and I will concede that it is not a perfect replica of the boozy version, but you can make something that’s pretty damn margarita-ish and really damn good by starting with Earl Grey tea.
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Hear me out: Earl Grey tea is made by mixing black tea leaves with oil from the rind of bergamot orange. By steeping the tea bag for a bit too long and giving it a good squeeze, you over-extract the tea’s ultra-bitter tannins. This can be mixed into ultra-sweet blue agave syrup, which has many of tequila’s non-bitter, non-alcoholic notes, and Earl Grey’s bergamot orange oil does the work that Triple Sec normally handles within a margarita.
Tequila wouldn’t be tequila without a little bit of burn, and you can accomplish that with the addition of some spice. I understand you might think the idea of adding smoked paprika or chipotle powder to agave-sweetened tea sounds utterly insane, but I need you to trust me: this works. If you drink the base alone, it makes no sense. When you shake it up with lime juice and ice, and serve with salt—a salted rim on your glass is crucial!—it somehow comes together. Again, it’s not a perfect replica of an alcoholic margarita, but it pushes a lot of the same buttons, just without the booze.
For the base:
- 1/2 cup boiling water
- 1 Earl Grey tea bag
- 1/3 cup blue agave syrup
For the rest:
- Lime juice, preferably freshly squeezed
- Pinch of smoked paprika or chipotle powder
- Kosher salt
To make the base: Steep the tea bag in the boiling water for 5 minutes, then remove and wring it out tightly. Stir in the agave syrup and allow to cool completely.
For a classic margarita mocktail: In a cocktail shaker with ice, stir together one part lime juice with two parts base and a pinch of spice. Strain into a salt-rimmed glass and serve immediately.
For a frozen margarita mocktail: Pour 1/4 cup of base into a liquid measuring cup, followed by 2 Tbsp. of lime juice and a pinch of spice. Add enough ice to bring the liquid to the 3/4-cup mark, then pour into a personal-size blender, blend for 10 seconds, and pour into a salt-rimmed glass.