Coming up with a new winning cocktail—with just a week to create it.
By Joe Neis as told to Zagat Stories
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Cointreau.
The Original Margarita has been around for 70 years, and is made with three simple ingredients: Cointreau, tequila, and lime. But there are so many twists to The Original Margarita that we decided to search the nation to find the best of the best. Bartenders from around the country have submitted their takes on this classic cocktail. The Infatuation judges, along with the public, have chosen the Top 3 Margaritas in the nation.
Joe Neis is beverage director at Dolly Varden in New York. Previously he’s worked as bartender and beverage director in Las Vegas, Chicago, and Miami, as well as for Wolfgang Puck in Orlando. His Lincoln’s Last Ride margarita won Best Margarita of the East in Cointreau and The Infatuation’s Margarita Nation.
Lincoln’s Last Ride Margarita
1 oz. jalapeño-infused Cointreau
2 oz. Montelbos Mezcal
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. muddled pineapple
3/4 oz. ginger-infused agave syrup
Rim with cane sugar and Aleppo pepper
Garnish with orchid flower, ginger candy, lime wheel
Dolly Varden used to be a different bar with the same owners, but it officially reopened as Dolly Varden in April 2021. I started with the company at the beginning of March. It was like, “Get a beverage menu together and do what you need to do.” I didn’t even have a staff when I wrote the beverage menu. I didn’t know what the skill level of my staff was going to be.
When I was thinking about that menu, I went to one of my favorite cocktail bars with my girlfriend. My girlfriend works in a hospital. She’s a sterilization technician. She doesn’t know about cocktails. We went to this place, and I was really stoked. She looks at me and she’s like, “You have to pick out a drink for me. I don’t know what any of this stuff is.” I looked down at the menu and I realized—I never want anyone to feel the way she did when they’re at my bar.
When I worked for Wolfgang Puck, I was writing cocktail programs at a super high level and using all of these really weird ingredients. But now I was like, “You know what? I’m in Midtown Manhattan. I want this to make sense.” So I wrote this whole cocktail program, and one of my vendors asked, “What do you think about putting in a margarita for Cointreau’s margarita contest with The Infatuation?” I said, “OK, cool.” And then they were like, “You have until Thursday.” I had one week!
When it comes to creating a margarita, there’s a framework. You have to show a level of respect. That recipe is there for a reason. The margarita is the number one-selling cocktail in the entire world. It’s not a cocktail that you should slap together.
I’m a certified sommelier, so I just broke it down into flavor profiles. Montelobos is a super-soft, really mellow mezcal. This is going to be my base. How do I make this base as a margarita? I took the softest mezcal because I thought it would be the easiest to work with. Instead of doing an agave, I did a ginger spice agave. I take the agave and I break it down, and I boil it down, and I add a bunch of fresh ginger, and I let it sit overnight. I let the ginger steep, and then I separate out the ginger the next day. It’s just to get a little bit of a spice in the agave.
Then I take the Cointreau, and instead of infusing the base spirit—which usually becomes really crazy spicy—I just infuse the Cointreau. I do a breakdown of jalapeño peppers into the Cointreau, and I infuse it for 15 minutes. It gets really hot really quick. I don’t want it to be spicy. I want it to taste like peppers. I just want it to taste green.
How am I going to get this margarita to taste a little different on the presentation? I mix cane sugar with a little bit of granulated sugar just to make it super sweet, and then the Aleppo pepper, which is a smoked Mexican pepper. I line the rim of the glass with simple syrup, then rim the glass with the sugar and pepper. This was one of those drinks that I made three times, and I took a sip, and I was like, “Yeah, we’re done.”
I want to get into the top 30 in the country in the margarita contest. When it got top 30, I was like, “Now I need to get number one.” I was stoked about the top 30. But to get number one was a really big feather in my cap. And this is my first ever job in Manhattan.
As bartenders, our craft is really important, but it’s not more important than the physical and personal interaction with people. I’m in Midtown Manhattan, and I could put my feet on the desk and say, “best margarita in the East, I’m just going to write cocktail programs.” No, man. I make drinks every day. I put my apron on every day, and I don’t have to. I do it because I choose to. I do it because it makes my guests feel good, and I care about my guests, and I want them to care about the place.