Some cocktails have such a strong reputation and iconic flavor that few substitutions could ever do them justice. Margaritas fall into this category for both their balance of sweetness, tartness and spiciness and their standing as a happy-hour fave.
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 plants, 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.
Margaritas have many variations. They can come flavored, like chili-mango and watermelon-mint, or on the rocks, frozen and up in a martini glass. The standard margarita recipe also depends on the locale—in interior Mexico, a margarita is equal parts blanco or silver tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice. An American margarita leans toward the softer and sweeter side—three parts tequila, two parts orange liqueur, one part lime juice and either half or one part simple syrup.
Vodka can replace tequila in a margarita, but the drink won't have the same bite. Its flavor is much subtler than tequila's and has none of the herbal, peppery and earthy qualities. 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 and retain the sweetness and tartness of the original.
Vodka isn't the only spirit that works in a pinch. Rum, although more sugary, has some of the same basic flavors and aromas as tequila. 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 mezcal, a Mexican liquor made from the agave plant, and cachaca, a Brazilian liquor distilled from sugar cane. Both mezcal 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.