The perfect margarita

The perfect margarita

It all started with an unwelcome potted plant. It was the middle of a sultry New York City summer and I had been sent one as a gift on the opening night of a play I was in. I’ve never had much of a green thumb, so I wished it good luck, exiled it to the farthest corner of my apartment’s balcony and proceeded to forget all about it.

A few weeks later, I found a note slipped under my door. It read, “Hi, We just moved in next door and noticed the plant on your balcony wasn’t doing so well. We’d be happy to take care of it for you. We have plenty of other plants so it will have company and we’re right next door so you can visit it any time you like.”

“Oh, fantastic,” I thought. “Nosy neighbours.” But I wasn’t too worried. This was New York and actually encountering one’s neighbours was unlikely. The next evening, however, I stepped out onto my balcony and there were the new neighbours, a smiling couple in their 70s, sipping cocktails on theirs. Our balconies were just a couple of feet apart and, after exchanging introductions, 28 storeys above Manhattan, I handed over the plant and they handed me a margarita.

Up until then, I’d never been a big fan of the margarita — always having associated it with woo-hooing revelers in cheesy Mexican restaurants — but this was one magnificent concoction. Mouth-wateringly frosty, it had a cheeky, tart bite with just the perfect amount of lip-smacking sweetness and a lethally intoxicating finish. And so, with that first sip, as we watched the sun set into the Hudson River, an unlikely friendship, that has now spanned nearly 15 years, was born.

Ethelyn and Dan were the leading warehouse auctioneers in the metro New York area. When tenants defaulted on their payments or simply disappeared, storage companies contracted them to auction off the contents of the units, which could turn out to be anything from decomposed junk to priceless works of art.

The sedate, retired lives most of their contemporaries were leading would have been inconceivable to them. They both worked full days and, every evening, precisely at 5 pm, Dan would throw open his bar, plug in his blender and declare “cocktail hour” commenced. The singular appellation was misleading because the “hour” would often extend into several times that. This ritual would also change with the seasons. In the warmer months, it was margaritas on the balcony. During the colder months, they’d switch to old fashioneds, indoors. It was a thoroughly civilised routine that, being their immediate neighbour, I benefited greatly from. Many an evening, margarita glasses migrated over from their balcony to mine, full and made the trip back, empty. I once made the mistake of asking for water between drinks and was met with incredulous looks. “Water? Fish swim in that!” they mocked, before thrusting another margarita into my hands.

Dan, a World War II veteran, had other cocktails in his repertoire, too — his martinis, in particular, were superb — but his margaritas were the undisputed star of the show. They seemed infused with the very zest and ebullience that he and Ethelyn themselves, radiated. In a city where people can go a lifetime without ever knowing their neighbour’s first name, they turned our floor into one big family. They got to know everyone, introduced everyone to everyone else and, when they weren’t hosting parties and plying us all with cocktails at their home, they were off watching Broadway shows, exploring the area, trying out new restaurants or taking cruises around the world.

A familiar sight on our street was Ethelyn marching briskly in her high heels with Dan on his motorized scooter (which Ethelyn dubbed ‘The Popemobile’) trying to keep up. I eventually moved out of the building and they moved up a few floors into a larger apartment but my plant continued to thrive on their balcony and we stayed in constant touch.

A few years ago, I got news that Dan had unexpectedly passed away. I called Ethelyn immediately and the first thing she said was, “Rahul! Don’t worry, he left me the margarita recipe!” And with it, she has carried on Dan’s legacy. She still runs their business and still makes his margaritas. When I’m in New York, cocktail hour at Ethelyn’s is always a non-negotiable part of my schedule.

I’ve often wondered what went into their heavenly potion but I’d never actually asked, presuming that it was, perhaps, a proprietary family secret they might not want to divulge. But, when I told Ethelyn I was writing this piece, she was more than willing to share the recipe.

Since I’d never tasted another margarita quite as delicious, I was expecting a complex formula with at least one surprise secret ingredient and I was amazed when I saw how simple it actually was. Still, it doesn’t taste quite the same when I make it myself. Without the subtle finessing at the hands of a seasoned mixologist, it’s all too clear that the secret is not just how it’s made but who is making it.

So, here it is. Give it your best shot. I intend to keep practising. Arriba!
Rahul Khanna

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