Creating riffs on a classic drink is a great way to satisfy customers
Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago offers three types of margarita on its menu but only uses the “margarita” name with one of them “because the others are riffs on the margarita,” says head bartender Mike Jones.
The bar here offers a spicy margarita, the Sotol Square, and The Misunderstood year-round.
The former, says Jones, is spicy from Bittermens’ Hellfire Habanero Shrub, whose main ingredient is habanero peppers, and which replaces the citrus in this cocktail. The bar uses a couple of drops of the shrub, which is enough for a kick: “a slight heat on the back end finish of the cocktail,” Jones says. “But you still get that beautiful citrus with the fresh notes of cucumber, then the spicy notes come in on the finish.”
The main alcohol in this drink, sotol is a distilled spirit made from the Desert Spoon plant or, in Spanish, sotol. It’s similar to tequila but has gentler, more floral notes, which substitute for tequila’s peppery flavor. It’s a spirit that’s becoming more recognized, Jones says, especially in Chicago where the cocktail scene is competitive and thriving. “I get surprised that so many people order the Sotol Square without asking any questions. So, people are either spending time out or are doing their homework, or some people want to branch out from tequila and we’ll suggest this.”
The Misunderstood contains tequila, house-made ginger syrup, honey, lime and muddled cucumber, and is topped off with pilsner beer. This is the best selling cocktail at the bar. It is served over rocks in a pilsner glass “and offers a bit of everything, and ginger seems to be the rage for the past few years,” Jones says. “We’ve got a winning combination with the spicy ginger and the cooling cucumber, and beer cocktails are starting to get traction.”
Last summer it also served the Seymour Station margarita take-off, which contained cherry tomatoes. It wasn’t the greatest seller, Jones says, “because I think people were afraid of tomato in the cocktail. They thought it was going to be a Bloody Mary but the tomato was there just to elevate the watermelon. If no one told you it was there you probably wouldn’t know.” This cocktail, he says, was very light, very fresh, and contained aloe vera pearls, which could be sucked up the fat bubble tea straw with which the beverage was served. The pearls nestled at the bottom of the drink under large ice cubes.
Sable's Seymour Station margarita.
It’s important to have margaritas, or riffs of them, on a menu, Jones says. “They’re a timeless classic and we’ve seen a rise in agave spirits—tequila, mescal, sotol—and people are getting excited about them.”
To use these cocktails as a base for a contemporary cocktail is just smart,” he explains. “They have stood up to the test of time and all have a place in our culture. For a modern day bartender, this is one of the fundamentals in cocktail building. Understanding classic cocktails also help guests have more appreciation for iterations.”
Notwithstanding, it’s important to keep the classic margarita on the menu, he says, though the bar has changed up its traditional margarita over the years. Called Tommy’s Margarita, it uses agave nectar instead of triple sec and Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao instead of Cointreau “to add bright orange and citrus notes,” Jones says.
Customers are drinking the margarita-style drinks at all times—as aperitifs, with their food, after dinner. Each one costs $14
Created by bartender Patrick Natola
- 2 oz. Sotol
- ¾ oz. Fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz. Housemade cucumber syrup
- 2 drops Bittermens’ Hellfire Habanero Shrub
Shake, strain and serve up in a coupe. Garnish with spiced salt cucumber wheel on rim.