New Mexico can’t claim the invention of tequila. That distinction belongs to old Mexico, where Spanish conquistadors and their enterprising priests learned to double distill fermented agave juice into something more palatable than the pulque they received from Mexico’s indigenous population. But New Mexico, and Santa Fe in particular, have perfected the art of the margarita, and the aptly-named Santa Fe Margarita Trail gives visitors the chance to sample the best of the best.
The premise is simple enough: upon arriving in town, purchase a Margarita Trail “passport” from any of the city’s three visitor centers for $3. Then, start drinking to earn stamps and prizes. The passport lists 31 restaurants and bars through Santa Fe, their address, phone number, website, a brief description, and a recipe for the specialty margarita they’ve created, especially for Margarita Trail Blazers. Also included on each page is a space for tasting notes and a key indicating an approximate price range and whether or not the restaurant has Wi-Fi, outdoor seating, or live music.
Unfortunately, some of the details have changed since the passport books were printed so when my husband and I selected Bar Alto for its live music as our second stop, dying to try to Pimms and blood orange concoction listed in the passport, we were disappointed to find that not only was there no live music but the specialty drink was no longer. We had their new margarita instead (something with cinnamon) which came in last place on our list of favorites.
Fortunately, you’re never more than a block away from live music in Santa Fe, especially during the summer bandstand series at the historic downtown plaza, and we had better luck elsewhere. At Georgia (just down the block from the Georgia O’Keefe Museum), we sampled the “Dessert Bloom,” made with Chambord, elderberry liqueur, the requisite tequila and a lavender salt rim. Agave Lounge’s “Eldorado Oro” lived up to its name with Grand Marnier and Patron’s “El Dorado Blend” Reposado Tequila (just in case you fell asleep in Spanish class, “oro” means “gold”). Best of all was Secreto’s garden-to-glass “Smoked Sage Margarita” complete with a hickory smoked salt rim, and the view was great from La Fonda’s Bell Tower Bar on the Plaza (as was the drink: the Bell Ringer listed in the passport had been replaced by a thirst quenching blend of cucumber and chile).
Our server at Agave cautioned us: were we recently arrived in town? If so, we should pace ourselves on account of the altitude. The official Margarita Trail rules only allow you to earn two stamps per day, so you need at least two and a half days in Santa Fe to earn five stamps (and the first of three prizes: a Margarita Trail t-shirt). If you stay long enough to earn 20 stamps (that’s a minimum of two drinks a day for ten days straight), you get a signed copy of The Great Margarita Book and if you complete the entire trail (all 31 drinks), you get a margarita bartender kit.
The passports never expire and entitle you to discounts on your margaritas. The advertised rate is $1 off each drink, but some bars gave us $2, and some gave us none at all on account of it being happy hour so don’t get too hung up on the numbers. Remember that you need to order the specialty margaritas to earn your stamps (the generic happy hour cocktails won’t cut it) and most of them are at least $12 a pop so plan accordingly.
It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but our quest for a free t-shirt led us through the city’s historic downtown just as well as any tour guide could have, thanks to the passport’s handy foldout map and bartenders who were happy to chat. As far as the five senses are concerned, Santa Fe’s Margarita Trail is a great way to experience the city’s unique history during a short getaway.