Does Margaritaville exist at Applebee's? Assuming you haven't already stopped reading, this was the question I pondered after discovering the string of casual dining spots offering a "Perfect Margarita." As part of my ongoing project to explore classic cocktails interpreted by chain restaurants, this was a no-brainer. If Applebee's was confident enough to declare its margarita as "perfect,” I was in.
Like many classic cocktails, the origins of the margarita are disputed. What's not up for debate is its popularity. Though some accounts show margaritas being enjoyed as early as the 1930s, awareness of the drink spiked significantly with Jimmy Buffett's* hit song "Margaritaville" in 1977. Today, people continue to gleefully sip them wherever they're available.
Buffett is on record claiming that Margaritaville is a state of mind rather than a physical place. Following his principle, I could conceivably experience that mindset at Applebee’s, provided I had the proper psychic framework. And a margarita.
At the first of two local Applebee's scouted for this project, I received an attractive-looking drink. Pale green in color, it came in a standard cocktail glass with half the rim delicately salted, and a blemish-free lime wedge attached. Taste-wise, it skewed a bit sweeter than I prefer, but stopped short of overwhelming. After conferring with the bartender on the specifics of the recipe, I discovered this particular drink doubles-down on the sugar, using a combo of two orange liqueurs, a sour mix, and a bit of simple syrup. This made me grateful for the salt, which tempered the sweetness. Overall, it looked great and tasted pretty good.
At the second location, I got an identical-looking drink, but with an improved flavor. I can't say whether this was due to a decrease in sugar or an increase in citrus (or possibly both), but drink No. 2 was the better of the pair. It was balanced, and with a noticeable acidic snap from which no margarita should shy away.
However, if you insist a margarita must be overly boozy, tart, or distinctive in some way, then you may want to keep looking. Understand that Applebee's Perfect Margarita works. It's probably what 75 percent of the world thinks a margarita should be, and that's fine. Perception is reality, and only the most insufferable amongst us turn up our noses at a solidly-made utility cocktail.
*There is a requirement that any discussion of the margarita must include a Jimmy Buffett reference. This is a variant of the "James Bond/Martini Rule.”
Follow featured contributor Craig Mrusek on Twitter @DoctorBamboo