While New Mexico often gets mistaken for an international destination, travelers here need only consider one kind of passport: the Margarita Trail.

The city's tourism department launched the annual program in 2016 to encourage locals and tourists alike to scour Santa Fe's bars and restaurants in search of the perfect pour. Passports are available at the three visitor centers and at
the Santa Fe School of Cooking for $3 (visit santafe.org/margaritatrail for more info on locations). And, in a new let's-get-digital plan, this year they're also available on the App Store or Google Play for $3.99. For each location visited, drinkers collect a stamp or scan a QR code for the purpose of winning prizes and rewards, though the contest mandates that only two stamps can be collected each day. The app includes an interactive map, notifications when prizes are achieved and fellow margarita enthusiasts' comments on their experiences and preferences. Both the app and the hard copy have location descriptions and recipes, and carrying either will get you a $1 discount on the featured margaritas purchased—but remember to ask for it or you won't likely get the deal.

A total of 31 restaurants and bars are participating. Despite being focused on only one drink, each has provided its own interpretation on the atavic concoction.

Renewed interest in classic cocktails has revived the margarita. Much like the daiquiri, the old-fashioned and countless tiki drinks, it became associated with cheap, blended and over-sugared incarnations. A true margarita is beautiful in its simplicity, a perfect balancing act between tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur and salt on the rim of a glass. Its origins are shrouded in mystery, but it's theorized that tequila became a substitute for brandy in a similarly styled cocktail called the Daisy during Prohibition when people explored across the border in search of more alcohol.

Today, the margarita has gained prominence across Mexico and the Southwestern United States, but it can also be considered the unofficial drink of Santa Fe. Each stop on the Margarita Trail provides a different spin on the drink, some more classic and others more craft. Many are making use of fresh ingredients and unique flavor combinations to provide added interest to their libations. For example, the trend of infusing tequila with fresh fruits and spices comes into play with the Chimayóso Margarita from Low 'n' Slow Lowrider Bar at Hotel Chimayó (125 Washington Ave., 988-4900) This features serrano-infused Espolón Reposado Tequila and substitutes apricot liqueur in place of orange.

In a similar vein, the Norteño Margarita from the Coyote Café and Cantina (132 W Water St., 983-1615) features green chile-infused silver tequila; the Sangre de Cristo Sunset Margarita at Eloisa (Drury Plaza Hotel, 228 E Palace Ave., 982-0883) includes a house-made lime, pepper and apple shrub. My personal favorite entry on the trail is the one on the menu at Terra, the hotel bar at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado (198 Hwy. 592, 946-5700). It's called Betty's Smoking Jalapeño Margarita, and features a combination of Santa Fe Spirits' Colkegan whiskey and 1921 tequila, along with Cointreau, agave, roasted jalapeño and chile. The smoky, earthy flavors of the tequila and jalapeño are complemented by the mesquite undertones of the Colkegan in an unexpectedly gratifying way. The drink itself was named for Betty Egan, the widow from Cleveland who purchased a ranch in 1968 and turned it into the hotel. Thankfully we're still drinking to her health to this very day.

Even though as a local I find the Margarita Trail to be more of a useful aid for the tourist experience, I appreciate the legacy it's working to achieve. At the very least, it's paying tribute to the margarita's prominence in Santa Fe's unique cocktail culture. According to mixologist Dale DeGroff, who spoke to SFR during the New Mexico Cocktail and Culture Festival, "a lot of people didn't know Santa Fe from Mexico until the margarita. They didn't know about the food here, or the culture. It was the margarita that served as a point of entry for them into a whole new culinary world."

Beyond The Margarita

Santa Fe's craft cocktail community reinvents tequila in unique new ways

While the margarita is the undisputed royalty of agave-based drinks, many bartenders in town are playing around with the wide range of floral, spicy and fruity flavors tequila can demonstrate. SFR spoke to three bars in town that put down the Cointreau in favor of Spanish vermouth, fresh herbs and Brazilian banana liqueur instead.

Molly Dietze Kennedy, head bartender at Paloma (401 S Guadalupe St.,
467-8624), subbed tequila for bourbon in her eponymous Molly's Manhattan. "I want to make it clear that this drink is technically from Mexico City," she tells SFR. "But at Paloma we carry a line of high-end tequilas called ArteNOM—and their producer spent six months in Scotland learning barrel aging, which is why the tequila slips so effortlessly into the traditional whiskey drink." In the case of Paloma's spin on a Mexican interpretation of a classic cocktail, the smoky, spicy character of ArteNOM Selección de 1146 Añejo combined with Miro Vermut de Reus Rojo, a particularly floral Spanish vermouth, makes for a perfect summertime tequila-based Manhattan. Put a cherry on top and call it done.

Created by Eloisa (228 E Palace Ave., 982-0883) bar supervisor Andrea Duran, the Plantanita ($13) is made of reposado tequila, Giffard Banane du Brésil, Cappelletti and lemon. The Passion Project ($13), created by bar manager Tom Street, features blanco tequila, passion fruit, blanc vermouth and lemon bitters. Both drinks take tequila in a different direction than the norm, which is to combine it with tart citrus flavors like lime. Instead, the tropical fruit flavors of passion fruit and banana are used to enhance the natural fruity tastes of tequila rather than cutting them with more acid. The Plantanita is broadly textured with a touch of sweetness, and the Passion Project is lighter, with citrus undertones adding a tart vibrancy to the taste of the passion fruit.

At Sazón (221 Shelby St., 983-8604), the tequila game is strong, particularly when it comes to cocktails. The Homegrown features Cruz del Sol blanco tequila combined with fresh lemon, Fever Tree tonic water and muddled sage, basil, thyme and mint. The fresh herbs bring out a unique, vegetal, earthy quality present in the tequila. The result is a refreshing aperitif-like drink, served on the rocks in a wine glass for a perfectly cooling summer libation. "It's a little like a mint julep because of the mint, which comes in really strong," says head bartender Amanda Morris. Bartender Joey Sholdra adds, "I think it's a little like a gin and tonic, but we imparted it with our own fresh botanicals."