Everyone loves a Margarita. But it’s not necessarily a low-waste cocktail in its most common form. Between the sour component (typically lime juice, with the rest of the fruit being discarded), the agave spirit (which comes with significant sustainability concerns), and the sweetener (with a few of its own), creating the most sustainable Margarita isn’t a straightforward equation, but rather the result of an array of choices.
Each element comes with its own set of considerations, and to create a less-wasteful cocktail, there are many factors to address. But before getting into the details of how to make a low-waste Margarita, it’s important to clarify what that term actually means.
Nickle Morris, a bartender and the owner of Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, defines “low waste” through the lens of his Native American heritage. “It’s not using something that I don't need and using every part of the things that I do,” he says. “Low waste is much more about the carbon footprint of glass [packaging], stillage, and citrus than it is about cute new recipes for the sake of being ‘low waste.’”
In an industry that’s inherently wasteful in many ways, an increasing number of bartenders over the past several years have been refining their techniques and doing their homework to ensure that their environmental impact—which includes their carbon footprint as well as the amount of trash they send to the landfill—is as light as possible.
Some of the drink world’s most mindful professionals have offered their suggestions on making sure no sustainability detail slips through the cracks, from holding spirit brands accountable to making the most of your citrus and beyond.
Choose Your Base Spirit Mindfully
Whether you opt for the standard tequila or prefer its earthier cousin, mezcal, there are a few ways to think about sustainability when it comes to the spirit selection for your Margarita.
Agave spirits, in particular, face long-term sustainability challenges: The massive volume of agave consumed creates the potential for overharvesting the plants, which usually require at least seven years to mature. But in order to select a brand or bottle that strives to be more sustainable, it’s important to know which questions to ask and where to look for answers.
“Tequila has concerns similar to any other spirit category,” says Morris. When thinking about which tequila or mezcal to buy, he says, “It’s important to ask questions such as, who made the spirit, how were they treated, and how did the maker treat the land it occupies?” In addition to social and cultural considerations, Morris also highlights the importance of restoring and protecting the land on which the agave is cultivated, which is crucial for local biodiversity and its ecosystem.
When agave farmers are able to produce crops in perpetuity while protecting natural resources, their agricultural practices can be considered sustainable—a goal many distilleries are striving to achieve. Some are more ahead of the curve than others, such as Tequila Ocho, which minimizes the use of chemicals in its agave fields and turns the fiber remnants from milling agave piñas, or hearts, into compost. Ocho also employs workers whose families have worked with the brand for generations.
Aside from the agricultural considerations, it’s important to think about how brands manage their stillage, or the solid remnants left in the still post-distillation. “It's caustic, usually toxic, and most distilleries just dump it,” says Morris. “Patrón does a great job of treating theirs, and Sombra mezcal has been making strides by using stillage to break down human waste in outhouses in rural areas of Mexico.”
These are many considerations to keep in mind, to be sure, but by taking the time to do some research, you can make increasingly ethical purchasing decisions.
Maximize Your Lime
The largest source of waste when making a Margarita is often the lime. In a typical drink, only the juice is used, with the rest of the fruit discarded—adding up to a big pile of husks destined for the landfill each night at a typical bar, and even a significant number in the trash can at home after taco night.
There are numerous alternatives for adding that welcome burst of sourness to a cocktail, however. You can acid-adjust your ingredients or use lacto-fermented ones, or you can employ techniques that will allow you to upcycle citrus waste and maximize the amount of usable juice you get from the fruit.
Morris has developed what he calls “Super Juice,” for which he employs a technique that allows him to extract at least a liter of juice from just 10 limes, a volume nearly triple what you’d get from merely juicing the same number of limes the conventional way.
He first makes an oleo citrate, similar to an oleo saccharum, macerating citrus peels in acid powders to extract the oils from the peels, and then blends the results with water to yield a shelf-stable evolution of fresh citrus juice. “Oleo citrate has the same acid content that fresh juice does, except it has six to 10 times the flavor,” says Morris.
He then juices the limes and adds that juice to the oleo citrate, creating an ingredient he calls “Super Juice,” a low-waste citrus solution that’s even more flavorful than fresh juice itself. It can be shaken in cocktails for the same effect as freshly squeezed lime juice.
Or Use a Less-Wasteful Lime-Juice Alternative
A different approach is to eliminate the lime component altogether and instead use an alternative and less wasteful ingredient for that important pop of acidity.
At London’s Kol Mezcaleria, the bar takes an unorthodox approach to crafting its house Margarita by combining mezcal, triple sec, and simple syrup with yuzu sake and verjus as the acidic components. “We had a few ideas in mind when developing our house Margarita,” says Matt Varona, the beverage manager at Kol. “We wanted our take to be efficient to service, low-waste, and have a unique and balanced flavor profile while not compromising on quality whatsoever.” Given the volume of Margaritas served at the bar and restaurant, that’s a large ask.
“For us to achieve this, we needed to cut out fresh citrus from the mix,” says Varona. Instead, the drink gets its citrus-like element from yuzu sake, with its acidity bolstered by verjus, which the team buys in five-liter bag-in-boxes to be less wasteful with packaging.
At Native, a London restaurant focused on sustainable cooking, the team gets creative with local food ingredients to create a unique take on the Margarita. ”Our menu, for both drinks and food, has always been dictated by the land and produce available,” says Native’s co-founder Imogen Davis of the restaurant’s hyper-seasonal approach to sourcing food. “With our Sea Buckthorn Margarita, we are able to utilize a local food, sea buckthorn, instead of citrus to reach the acidity levels a Margarita requires.” The Margarita even uses ants as a garnish; Davis says that the formic acid the ants produce gives the cocktail a “citrusy pop.”
Don’t Overlook the Sweetener
Depending on whether you prefer the Tommy’s Margarita style, made with agave nectar, or the classic made with orange liqueur, there are a few ways to ensure your sweetener is as eco-conscious as possible.
“Curaçao is a big factor, with a few things to consider [similar to tequila],” says Morris. “What was it shipped in? Was there a single glass bottle made just for that curaçao? How is the base alcohol distilled and moved, and from how far did it come? How is it sweetened? Where did the citrus peels for the flavor come from? Were the employees paid fairly and treated ethically?”
As a means of addressing those concerns, Morris and his team at Bar Expo make their own curaçao using local brandy from Copper and Kings distillery in Louisville, Kentucky—a fairly expensive and labor-intensive step, to be sure, but an effective way of ensuring the curaçao he uses is made ethically.
Other sweetener options include, of course, agave nectar (as is used in the Tommy’s Margarita), although its high fructose content means it’s not the best option for every drinker; a syrup made with local honey makes a great alternative to agave. If you’re not making Super Juice, you can use your lime peels to make a citrus cordial or oleo saccharum as a clever way of lifting the drink’s citrus profile while also adding the necessary amount of sugar to balance the acidic component.
At Native, Davis has worked in the past with local food companies to collect their citrus waste, which the bar upcycled to create a blood-orange liqueur used in a seasonal Margarita. “Creating low-waste twists just requires thinking a little outside the box,” says Davis.