3 Recipes For a More Nuanced Margarita

Right about now, America remembers that May is the best month for a Margarita.

Doubtlessly the U.S. spring romance with Margaritas kicks off with Cinco de Mayo, even though the Paloma remains the preferred choice back in Mexico. The momentum afterward is that it’s finally warm enough for an iced, or even frozen, drink, but it’s not yet so hot that that cocktail’s sweetness cloys on a thirsty day.

But guess what? Late summer is also great for a Margarita. And autumn. And even winter, according to bartender Paige Walwyn of Chicago’s Queen Mary Tavern, who ought to know, given how in-demand her cocktail creations are. 

“Margaritas are perfect year-round,” she says, “because they are approachable and lend well to different flavor profiles. I love playing around with fresh tropical fruits, herbs, and spices in the summertime and baking spices in the winter months.” 

Granted, Walwyn is a world-class talent when it comes to developing a drink recipe, but lucky for you she’s done all the hard work devising the Margarita Alexandre, a take on the beloved beverage that bestows earthy mole flavors of cacao and guajillo on the drink’s template, with Grand Marnier standing in for the traditional triple sec.

“Grand Marnier simply adds an extra level of richness and luxury to your everyday cocktails, Walwyn says. “The introduction of cognac, bitter orange, and time in French oak adds a new layer of depth that pairs amazingly with other spirits and citrus.” 

Walwyn prefers to introduce an exotic fruit, spice, or herb to the classic Margarita base, so that drinkers find the change refreshing and intriguing, without altering the fundamentals of the drink. 

In that regard, substituting Grand Marnier for triple sec is an easy upgrade. As an ingredient, it adds complexity, without requiring any extra steps, and stays faithful to its orange liqueur foundation. The barrel-aged cognac used in Grand Marnier brings a rich, nutty oak nuance that’s absent from triple sec’s hyper-distilled silver alcohol. It’s not that brown liquors are always better— without neutral spirits, Grand Marnier wouldn’t be able to properly macerate its signature green orange peels— but they’re definitely more layered, thanks to the chemical compounds wood staves impart to aged spirits. 


1 ounce Grand Marnier Cuvée Louis Alexandre
2 ounces Cacao nib and guajillo-infused blanco tequila
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce orange syrup
1 dash cocoa bitters 

Garnish: Dried guajillo pepper 


  1. Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. 
  2. Shake.
  3. Fine strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. 
  4. Garnish with dried guajillo pepper. 

Alicia Perry, beverage director at San Diego’s Consortium Holdings, finds that the French spirit can contribute not only hard citrus notes, but cacao, hazelnut, caramel, vanilla bean, and even baked apple too.  Her own formulation, the Pacific Rim, pulls deep-summer strawberry flavor into the classic profile, then gives it a beach vibe with the charry depth of a black lava sea salt rim.

“I appreciate Margaritas that are somewhat vegetal, citrus forward, and not overly sweet,” she says. “Salinity is big for me, although, I understand not everyone enjoys salt with their Margarita. I feel salt can highlight some of the nuanced flavors of the agave spirit such as clay, stone, fruit, and citrus.”


1/2 ounce Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge
1 1/2 ounces Espolòn Tequila Blanco
1/4 ounce amber agave
1 ounce lime juice
1 muddled strawberry

Garnish: Black lava salt and strawberry


  1. Shake all contents with ice in cocktail shaker.  
  2. Dump into preferred glass. 
  3. Salt rim with black lava salt and garnish with a strawberry.

What about Marg-makers with a sweet tooth? Before you reach for that bottle of simple syrup, consider using Grand Marnier in your Margarita, and you won’t need to supplement with added sugar like you would with triple sec. The Cordon Rouge’s inherent sweetness is married to oaky notes from the wood, bringing more flavors to brighten the drink without making it cloying. 

If you like your drinks sweeter than that, the Grand Margarita is the officially recommended version of the classic cocktail, and it uses agave nectar to balance the tart lime juice while bringing in an additional Mexican flavor that’s more nuanced than simple syrup on its own. 


3/4 parts Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge*
1 1/2 parts Espolòn Reposado
3/4 parts fresh lime juice
1/4 parts agave nectar

Garnish: Lime wheel, salt rim optional


  1. Combine ingredients in a shaker tin.
  2. Add ice and shake.
  3. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.
  4. Garnish with a lime wheel. 

Remember as you plot your pool parties, sailing trips, and other hot summer gatherings: “Grand Marnier is so luxurious and complex, but since it is a bit higher proof than some orange liqueurs, you should take that into consideration when building your recipes featuring it,” Walwyn says. But what if that were a plus?  

Since the Ugni Blanc grape-based brandy used to make Grand Marnier is de facto fortified, it retains plenty of punch: a crucial factor as the guide to taking your frozen Margarita one step beyond makes plain: you’ll want to pack in flavor to counterbalance all the ice water. Grand Marnier tags in at the recommended level of 80 proof. In the case of a blended, frozen cocktail, where drinking too fast is an instant cold-headache, and drinking too slowly guarantees dilution, that 40% ABV can be a plus that maintains equilibrium from top of glass to bottom. 

For plenty of reasons, Grand Marnier is a sophisticated step up in the Margarita game. Depending on the tweaks you choose to make – and those are what make the many variations of the Margarita so endlessly enjoyable– you might just want to keep drinking these come July, September, and December. 



Words: Brendan McGinley
Editor: Christie Rotondo
Art Director: Clara Shader-Seave
Prop Stylist: Katrina Rozeville
Drink Stylist: Heather Meldrom
Producer: Hannah Lee

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