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Are Key Limes the Best Limes for Margaritas?

Key Limes! Does anyone know what’s the dang deal with all of those key limes?

Fresh Key Limes are the Key at Tiki Tolteca and Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria

tiki-tolteca-new-orleans-margarita-key-limeIf you’ve hung out at the Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria’s bars or here are Tiki Tolteca, you may have noticed a whole lot of key limes. Except for our frozen drinks, all of the lime juice we use is from key limes. We get a lot of comments about this, especially from other bartenders. Usually it’s some variation of, “There’s no way I would work at a place where I had to squeeze teeny tiny key limes for every drink!”

True, it can get tedious before Cinco de Mayo when you’re spending two days prepping key lime juice just for one day of business. But mostly we’re all just used to it. Squeezing-to-order makes the day go by quicker and also shows people they’re getting a quality product.

But here’s the secret to why we really do it: It’s totally worth it! It’s more legit and it just tastes better.

The Key Lime Story

Latin American countries with cocktail cultures are proud of their own unique variety of limes. Ask a Peruvian bartender how to make a proper pisco sour and he’ll tell you it has to be Peruvian limes. Mexico is the same way about their key limes.

And here’s something you probably didn’t know: The things we Americans consider limes are technically called “Persian limes,” and they likely didn’t even exist in America before 1895! A guy named John Bearss invented them in his nursery in California. He wanted a lime that was bigger, hardier, had more juice and no seeds, and grew on a thorn-less tree. He succeeded in all of this, but for all that he gained, he sacrificed that which matters most – flavor. Squeeze a key lime on your quesadilla and compare it with a Persian lime and you’ll see the difference. (Or just taste one of our margaritas.)

To be fair, the history on this seems muddy. Persian limes may have come from Persia and Bearss just introduced them to California. Or maybe he just tweaked it a little genetically, in which case the Bearss lime might be a more appropriate name. But the fact is that back in the day, key limes where what most of the Americas had to offer.

Our Approach to the Lime Debate – Flavor and Tradition

key-lime-best-margaritas-new-orleansWhen it comes to cocktail ingredients, one can take any of several approaches. The two that appeal most to us are 1) Use ingredients that taste better, and 2) Use ingredients that are traditional.

We firmly stand behind the flavor of the key lime over the Persian lime, but what about its role in the history and tradition of margarita and tiki drinks?

The margarita likely originated sometime around the 1920s in Mexico near the border. Tiki drinks originated in California in the 1930s (at least commercially). Bearss’ Persian lime would have only been 35 years old and apparently only gained much traction when a hurricane wiped out Florida’s key lime trees in the 20s and they were replaced with Persian lime trees. But that was all the way across the vast United States, and key limes would have still been widely in use.

Answer: I think the original tiki drinks and the original margarita were made with key limes.

I’m still digging to find more definitive evidence, but that’s where I currently stand. I would love to start a debate here. Does anyone have any information on this?

Here are some interesting links to get you started:

Key Limes vs. Persian Limes, from Tiki Central
Persian limes, from Homecooking on About.com
Persian limes according to wikipedia

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the flavor and tradition of key limes vs Persian limes.

And be sure to come taste the difference for yourself, at Felipe’s Taqueria or Tiki Tolteca!

-Nathan Dalton

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