AAs a kid growing up in Phoenix, most Sunday mornings (at least the ones I didn’t skip school) would have been found at the big United Methodist Church downtown. It wasn’t the closest Methodist church, but it had the best choir. Closest to our house was a beautiful little church in the style of the missions of southwestern Spain, Bethel United Methodist. It was small and sleepy and was losing parishioners at a rate that would lead the church to leave it in 2007.
Surprisingly, given Arizona’s reckless disregard for what little architectural history it has (a decade ago developers almost bulldozed one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last and best structures, the David and Gladys Wright), the abandoned Bethel building was not demolished. Instead, it was reborn several years ago as the upscale, upscale Mexican restaurant, Taco Guild.
The joint makes the most of its ecclesiastical past, though the restaurant is somewhat confused about the building’s denominational roots. For example, instead of a “happy hour,” the bar offers a decidedly un-Methodist “confession hour.” That said, given the abstinence tendencies once dominant in their identity, the very concept of drinking would be appalling to old-school Methodists. Drinking in what had once been a Methodist church would be particularly anathema.
I found myself at the Taco Guild bar the other night with two margaritas in front of me, one the “house margarita”, the other a drink labeled the “holy grail” – not, I must clarify, a “holy margarita”. Grail” but simply a “Holy Grail” – which begs the question: when does a margarita stop being a type of margarita and become another drink?
There is a long tradition of specifying what would otherwise be the generic ingredients that make a margarita and giving that drink a specific name. There are three basic ingredients in a margarita: tequila, orange liqueur, and lime (or lemon). There are hundreds of brands of tequila and multiple expressions, such as silver (or unaged) and reposado (minimum aged in oak barrels), of each brand. Not as extensive as the tequila selection, there is still a variety of orange liqueurs to use to balance out the tart citrus of the drink. There are generics like “triple sec” and famous brands like Cointreau. There are even several choices within a brand: the drink can be made with brandy-based Grand Marnier, for example, or, if you’re into fries, with the expensive Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire, who uses 25-year-old cognac. .
Let’s say there are 100 tequila choices (a gross understatement) and 10 types of orange liqueur. There alone, you have a thousand possible combinations for a margarita. If you give each variant its own name, you’ll get quite a long list of drinks.
Or, if you tweak those thousands of drinks a bit, you’ll end up with something like the “Great Margarita List” at Maria’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It includes some 70 individually named iterations of the classic cocktail. There is the “Infinity” (Clase Azul Plata and Cointreau), “El Grandioso” (Exotico Reposado and Grand Marnier), “Silver City” (Herradura Silver and triple sec), and so on, almost endless.
It might seem silly to give a classic a different name based on ingredient brands, and at Maria, the shtick is clearly out of whack. But what about the Holy Grail in front of me at old Bethel?
There’s an effort in the mix that makes it both specific and difficult to copy. Restaurant co-owner Dominick Scarpinato travels to Jalisco, Mexico, to the La Altena distillery where El Tesoro tequila is made. He selects an individual barrel of aging tequila to be bottled only for Taco Guild. Combine the custom-made El Tesoro with Cointreau, lime juice, and a little simple syrup to taste, and you have a margarita so good Taco Guild can call it what they want.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s your drink?