Can I Substitute Vodka for Tequila in a Margarita?

By Chance E. Gartneer

Some cocktails have such strong reputations, as well as tastes and potencies, that few substitutions -- either the drink or what's in the drink -- will do. Margaritas fall into this category for both their balance of sweetness, tartness and spiciness and their standing as good fair-weather patio drinks. One of the key ingredients of a margarita is tequila, a Mexican liquor distilled from the blue agave plant. Vodka, on the other hand, is distilled from various sources, including grains, potatoes, wheat and even grapes. Although both spirits have about the same potency, vodka margaritas won't taste the same as tequila versions.

Blended margaritas
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Tequila is a main ingredient in both frozen and on-the-rocks margaritas.

The Classics

Margaritas have many different variations. In addition to flavored ones, such as chile-mango and watermelon-mint, margaritas come on the rocks, frozen and up in a martini glass. The standard margarita's recipe varies also in different locations -- in interior Mexico, a margarita is equal parts blanco or silver tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice. A conventional margarita leans toward the softer and sweeter in the U.S. -- 3 parts tequila, 2 parts orange liqueur, 1 part lime juice and either 1/2 or 1 part simple syrup, which is just equal parts sugar and water.

Too Subtle Substitutions

Vodka can substitute tequila in a margarita, but the drink won't have the same bite. Vodka's flavor is much subtler than tequila's and has none of the herbal, peppery and earthy qualities that tequila has. Vodka is also quite odorless, whereas tequila has a distinct fiery aroma. Vodka margaritas are more like kamikazes, which are either shots or on the rocks cocktails with the same ingredients and proportions as standard margaritas. Still, vodka margaritas are refreshing cocktails that retain the sweetness and tartness of the original.

The Substitution's Second

Vodka isn't the only spirit that will work in a pinch. Another liquor that can substitute is rum. Rum, although more sugary than tequila, has some of the basic flavors and aromas of the south-of-the-border spirit. A few guidelines for subbing rum for tequila are white rum for blanco tequila and light rum for joven or gold tequila. Other substitutes include mescal, a Mexican liquor made from the agave plant, and cachaca, a Brazilian liquor distilled from sugar cane. Both mescal and cachaca are harsher than tequila -- either cut back back on the liquor a little or add a bit more simple syrup to counter the harshness.

A Splash of Something Special

Tequila substitutes may mix well with a margarita's other ingredients and reach the same powerhouse potency, but they will always miss tequila's distinct flavors. A couple of non-alcoholic alternatives exist that can give margaritas that tequila taste. Agave syrup can substitute part or all of the simple syrup to produce a more tequila-tasting margarita. Another choice is tequila extract, which mimics tequila's spice and earthiness -- just add a few drops to the finished drink. One more little helper is tequila syrup; although this syrup is intended for coffee drinks and desserts, substituting half of the simple syrup with it will result in a bolder fake margarita.