February 22 is the made-up World Margarita Day. I say “made-up” because it’s 100 per cent made-up.
Apparently, the celebration was invented by an American named Todd McCalla “to spread his love for Margaritas around the world” – a story that may, in fact, also be entirely made-up. Either way, it’s a day that spotlights the tequila-spiked cocktail, and it’s been fervently embraced by seemingly every bar and restaurant in this city. (The Broadsheet email account has been bombarded with Margarita drink deals and events for weeks now).
I’m a big fan of Margaritas. For about two years (actually real, not made-up), I’ve been ordering the cocktail when I can and mentally assessing its merits and assigning it a position on the Sarah Norris Margarita Inventory for the sole purpose of creating a list of Sydney’s best Margaritas.
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We have a running quip in the Broadsheet office that goes something like this: “Last night I went to [insert venue name] and had several cocktails – for research purposes.”
“For research purposes” gives legitimacy to a whole bunch of things – burgers for dinner two nights in a row, pizza for lunch, wine on Monday night (feel free to use it yourself, it’s handy) – but it’s actually also helpful for acquiring knowledge. Which is another way of saying I’m not coming to the declaration of Sydney’s best Margarita lightly – there’s some legitimate research to back it up (i.e. lots of Margaritas).
What I’ve discovered along this selfless journey is that not all Sydney Margaritas are created equally, and there is absolutely one Margarita that stands above all others. And that is, without a doubt, Cantina Ok’s Margarita.
What makes it so extraordinary is that it’s well-rounded (as all fantastic cocktails should be), deliciously cold, doesn’t make your mouth pucker and doesn’t taste like you’re being slapped across the face by booze. Taking that first sip is like being guided into a sophisticated, plush velvet room where someone slides out a comfortable lounge that you tumble onto with a feeling of unparalleled contentment and delight.
That metaphor is a bit ironic, it turns out, because this tiny, 20-person laneway cocktail bar has no seats. The former garage turned mezcal mecca is standing-room only.
(Editor note: Since writing this, the bar has added laneway seating – although it is not plush velvet lounges. The bar can’t serve drinks in glass to punters partaking in the lane, which means all drinks are served in paper cups, including the Margaritas. This sadly does change their taste.)
The bar makes its house drink by combining high-proof tequila, Oaxacan mezcal, sugarcane syrup and lime juice pressed to order. The bartenders measure the ingredients, shake and serve over shaved ice. “Do not forget the orange skin,” cautions co-owner Jeremy Blackmore. It’s twisted to impart a spray of zest over the glass, then placed on top as a garnish. “It truly changes the first sip you drink.”
This method results in a perfectly balanced, punchy and zesty ride, and with a hint of smokiness thanks to the mezcal. It’s not blunt like many (so many) Margaritas in this town and, importantly, it’s consistent. (We’re told they use the same fresh sugarcane syrup used at Vietnamese restaurants, bahn mi shops and some fruit and veg markets – rather than regular sugar syrup – which makes a huge difference.)
“We’ve probably tried 20,000 Margaritas each, one strawful at a time,” Blackmore tells Broadsheet of the vigorous research he’s done to perfect the drink, along with fellow co-owner Alex Dowd and the bar staff. “We spent five years tweaking our recipes at our other bar, only to turn around and go back for the most simple recipe. It didn’t come out of years of experience, it arrived fully formed one morning, perfectly balanced – fun and tart and icy and zesty.”
If you’ve been to the CBD venue, you’d have seen the Amar Rajkot ice shaving machine at the bar. “It’s a thing of real beauty, my pride and joy,” says Blackmore. “The colour is ‘safety yellow’ – just like the first daffodils of spring. It’s from Nepal, with love. I couldn’t imagine Cantina Ok without it.”
And I couldn’t imagine a better Margarita without it, either. The ice it produces is fluffy, just like that pillowy velvet lounge I tumble into in my mind every time I drink one of these Margs. Look, if Todd McCalla can make up an entire day, I can make up a fake lounge, surely.
This story was first published on February 2, 2020 and updated on February 22, 2022.