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Mojitos, martinis, and caipirinhas (sugar-cane liqueur, sugar, and lime juice) may be the popular drinks in Miami's South Beach, but in Key West the margarita Jimmy Buffett crooned about is still alive and well.
Every bar and club serves them, either the classic version or in dozens of variations. Every bartender claims to make the best. Here are some that rank tops in their category. At the Half Shell Raw Bar, the Raw Bar Rita, made with 1800 Sauza Silver Tequila and a splash of Patrón Citronge, has a funky green glow but good tartness. The PamaRita, which the menu claims is "for the health nut," is much prettier, dyed and flavored with a splash of red Pama liqueur, and also fueled with Sauza Silver. It scores best in the novelty category.
Although El Meson de Pepe brags about its mojitos, its Gold Margarita, made with El Jimador Reposado, is no slouch. It goes especially well with a basket of Cuban bread served with addictive red and green dipping sauces, so it rates tops for its ability to play well with food.
At Bagatelle's Toucan Bar, the Patrón's Margarita, named for its brand of top-shelf tequila, gets points for being smooth, almost creamy. It's the perfect balance of tart and sweet. The view of Duval Street adds to the enjoyment.
At Mangoes, the Mangorita is naturally the signature drink. Very tropical, but made with Cuervo and Marie Brizard, it ranks in the "tourist drink" category.
The Conch-a-Rita at Conch Republic Seafood Company pours on the Herradura tequila with a splash of Cointreau. This is a strong contender in the classic category.
At Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville one would expect high competition. Buffett on the stereo makes a margarita go down just right, with or without a shaker of salt. Jimmy's own brand of gold Margaritaville tequila goes into the potent Uptown Margarita, topped with a float of Gran Gala.
Schooner Wharf's Schoonerita takes top rating in the classic class. The bartender shakes the cocktail and squeezes in a healthy dose of real lime juice at the end. Made with Sauza tequila, it comes served in a proper glass birdbath–shape vessel, although this one has a stem in the shape of a cactus. (South-of-the-border kitsch and margaritas go well together.)Updated: 10-2013
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