drink up!

How Mexico’s Best Bartender Makes a Margarita

Fatima León’s Extraordinary Margarita. Photo: Melissa Hom

Fifteen minutes into my meeting with the current star of the Mexican mixology scene, I have already committed a margarita mistake. Fatima León — who last year won the World Class Mexico, the country’s Olympics of mixology, cementing her place as the best bartender in the country — gives me a questioning look as I squeeze my lime into the margarita she’s just made.

“Should I not squeeze the lime into my drink?” I ask — even though I already know the answer.

“I don’t recommend squeezing them because the peel has a bitter flavor and it messes up the balance of the drink,” León tells me. She has briefly descended from her perch as the senior bartender at Fifty Mils, the cocktail bar at the Four Seasons in Mexico City, to come to the U.S., and teach me how to make the perfect version of what I might argue is the world’s most perfect drink.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent there’s another way that I — and many others — have been corrupting our margaritas. “There’s too much salt around the rim,” she explains. A full rim of salt overpowers the drink’s other elements, so León places salt around just half the glass. “The margarita in Mexico is a completely different flavor than in the U.S.,” León tells me. She posits that may be because the fresh lime in Mexico is different and that the tequila is 35 proof, whereas in the U.S. it’s 40 proof. “Less alcohol impacts the flavor.”

Next comes the shaking, something León does with fierce determination. But she isn’t happy. “This isn’t good ice,” she says, looking disappointedly at what looks to a layperson like, well, normal ice. At Fifty Mils, she, like many of the world’s top bartenders, makes her own ice: each piece is exactly four centimeters in diameter. Smaller pieces of crushed ice, she says, dilute the margarita too much. For those who don’t make their own ice, León says to shake vigorously for 30 seconds. If you are using larger ice to León’s specifications, shake for just 20 seconds.

Still, even with the “bad” ice, the final product doesn’t taste compromised. Instead it is the most balanced, refreshing margarita I have ever had in all of my 36 years. But León is not done. Instead, she wants me to try a version that she serves at Fifty Mils, called — humbly — the Extraordinary Margarita. The basic template is the same, but she takes just a bit of creative license, adding Aperol and a few twists of orange peel for garnish.

The resulting pale-pink drink is a bit of a shock, but it is also nothing like any other pink margarita you’ve had. The candy hue prepares your brain for sweetness, but instead, you get a slightly bigger edge from the Aperol. “It’s completely different than you might think of the margarita because it’s more of an aperitif,” León says. “It’s elegant, bitter, not too sweet, and perfect for the start of the evening.”

In fact, León sees margaritas in general as more of an aperitif than as something to be guzzled with loads of guacamole, chips, and steak fajitas (my usual intake method). “It’s too much alcohol to have with food, and all that tequila will overpower the meal,” she offers. The two strong drinks are indeed eye-opening, but they’re also about to overpower me, so I ask León to pass some nearby nuts so I can avoid falling off my chair.

She, of course, obliges, because she is highly attuned to people and what they want. At Fifty Mils, where she has worked for the last two and half years, she has a cult following. On the nights she works, sometimes over 20 people come in just to see her. “I like to make drinks based on people’s personality — I read people and go from there,” she says. “For happy people, I like to make tequila-based drinks.”

Regardless of your own happiness level, it’s worth making your own version of León’s margaritas, too:

The Classic Margarita
15 ml. orange liqueur (preferably Cointreau)
15 ml. fresh lime juice
50 ml. tequila

In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients and shake with ice for 30 seconds. Strain the drink into a glass with half of the rim salted. Add a slice of lime for garnish if you’d like.

The Extraordinary Margarita
20 ml. Aperol
15 ml. orange liqueur (preferably Cointreau)
15 ml. fresh lime juice
50 ml. tequila (preferably Don Julio 70)
Orange peels for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients and shake with ice for 30 seconds. Strain the drink into a glass with half of the rim salted. Garnish with the orange peels.

How Mexico’s Best Bartender Makes a Margarita