Votes from a bar owner’s customers propelled this cocktail to the top of the menu.
By Tara Gillum 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.
Tara Gillum is the owner of Steiner’s Speakeasy in Chillicothe, Ohio. Gillum served flights of margaritas to her customers and let them vote on their favorites. In a surprise move, they picked Gillum’s recipe made with elote, or Mexican street corn, as the drink she’d submit to Cointreau and The Infatuation’s Margarita Nation. I Love You Elote went on to win Best Margarita of the Central US.
I Love You Elote Margarita
1 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. El Jimador Reposado Tequila
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. muddled pineapple
1 oz. house-made Mexican street corn simple syrup
Garnish with double lime wheel and pineapple leaf
As a result of the pandemic, the video aspect of what we do as bartenders is super important. When we got closed down because of COVID, we survived on cocktail tutorials that I did online. I was basically taking things that were pretty normal for us to make at the bar, and teaching people how to make them themselves.
The first one we did was our Old Fashioned. We’re really, really known locally for our Old Fashioned, and we don’t make them very traditionally. I do a simple syrup with orange peel and cherry, so there’s not the traditional muddling aspect. When I first decided to do tutorials online, I thought, “We’ll do that one. That’s our most popular cocktail. And if we end up being closed down for a month, six months, a year, or whatever this ends up being, if nothing else, people can look back on that video.” That was a piece of us that they could still have. So when we did get to reopen, they never lost that connection.
And a lot of people were like, “Is that smart? You’re taking everything you’re famous for, and you’re teaching us how to make it.” I think it made us relevant when we couldn’t be relevant. Something that people don’t think a lot about in the bartending world is that a lot of people can make a good drink, but it’s the connection to that person—the connection between you and your customer—that people really want.
As for to-go cocktails, batching was huge for us during the holidays because we had so many people coming in. It was not just one Old Fashioned to-go, it was four. So batching became very important because obviously you’re low-staffed because there’s only so many people that could be in the building under the pandemic rules. You have to be able to make a lot of things quickly. Batching was something I never loved doing prior to COVID, because I think the experience of watching people make things is something that customers enjoy. But when we were doing mass quantities of carryout, batching became super-crucial for us.
I personally had always fought against batching cocktails because it’s not something that I love. But it was really great that it could give me a sense of consistency that you can’t get if you try to do everything on the fly. You don’t ever want to lose quality. Batching does give you complete control over that. I knew that every cocktail going out that door was going to taste the exact same way as the five prior. And that’s always super important.
When it comes to creating margaritas, the world’s your oyster. You can do whatever you want. It can be savory. It can be spicy. It can be sweet. It’s really wherever your mind wants to take you. Not all cocktail styles are that way, but I really appreciate that in this style. When I started doing this, it was literally like, “What kind of crazy flavor combinations can I come up with?” Of course, they don’t all make it and they don’t all work.
Ironically, sometimes the margaritas you think are going to be the easiest to pull off are the ones that end up being the most challenging. I really wanted to do a super-simple sparkling raspberry margarita, like a sparkling rosé style raspberry margarita. I was using rosés that I loved and that I would normally drink for brunch. I thought they were great, but in a cocktail they were not holding up in the way that I needed them to.
We do a seasonal margarita for every quarter. In the winter, we like to do something with pear and a little more savory with spice. Summer is going to be lighter and fruitier. Then in fall, we do a really great apple margarita with some other fall fruits like peaches and cherries. Margaritas are so versatile. You can take such a basic recipe—tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau—and then add all these crazy things that make it something so desirable throughout the year.
For the Margarita Nation contest, I actually did margarita flights. I created four margaritas that I thought were cool concepts, and I asked all of our guests to come in, try this flight, and then vote on what their favorite was. Whatever they voted as their top would be what I would enter in this competition. It was a way to make it very interactive and make them feel like they have a say in what we were doing.
I’m a huge fan of Mexican street corn. There’s something about corn and simple syrup that I love. When the margarita competition came up, I was like, “Let’s do an elote margarita.” And everybody’s like, “That’s not going to taste good.” I was like, “It might not, but let’s try it.”
There definitely was trial and error. The first one wasn’t great. The second one was better. The fourth one was the best. Every time I would take a flight of margaritas out, people would be like, “Elote … what is that?” I’d answer, “Mexican street corn.” They would say, “I’m not going to like that.” And then after trying it, every time they would be like, “That one was my favorite.” It was great to have all of my customers and all of my regulars be such a force in what we entered. They’ve been super pumped that we won, and it makes them feel like they won too.