09/05/2010 08:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

For the Best End-of-Summer Margarita, Orange You Forgetting Something?

As Labor Day arrives and with it the unofficial end of summer, it's almost time to put the white linen pants back in the closet and stick the grill in the garage for another eight months or so. And what better way to mark the end of summer than with a pitcher of margaritas? The margarita is a light, refreshing and potent cocktail that can cool down the most sweltering days and tame the most savage thirst. Of course, margaritas are delicious year-round, but something about them says "summer" to me, even when I'm drinking one in February. One thing I particularly love about margaritas is how easy they are to make -- all you need is fresh-squeezed lime juice, the tequila of your choice, and triple sec.

When I mention that third ingredient to friends, I get a lot of "Huh?"s and "What's that?"s. Well, triple sec also goes by the name of curaçao. What's the difference between curaçao and triple sec? After intensive research, I can tell you definitively that... I'm not sure. What I do know is that both curaçao and triple sec are orange liqueur, a vital and under-appreciated ingredient in one of the world's most popular cocktails.

Which triple sec you use in your margs should not be taken lightly, any more than your choice of tequila. My ideal margarita recipe is three parts tequila to two parts triple sec to one part lime juice. That means triple sec is fully one-third of of the drink. A good triple sec will temper the sourness of the lime juice and smooth out the fire of the tequila, while at the same time adding its own depth and complexity to the drink. A bad one will add little more than sugar and some kind of (usually artificial-tasting) orange flavor.

There are literally dozens of orange liqueurs on the market, be they triple secs or curaçaos or otherwise named. Here are a few of my favorites, all of which make a fine margarita and are also tasty for sipping on their own.

Orange You Forgetting Something? Triple Secs & Curaçaos

LIME JUICE & MARGARITA MISCELLANY: All you need to remember about lime juice is this -- if you're using bottled lime juice (like Rose's) instead of fresh-squeezed, you are committing a federal crime against Cocktail Nation, not to mention making a lousy margarita. Salting the rim of the glass is optional, depending on your taste. Glasses should ideally be chilled before use. And margaritas, since they combine spirits with fruit juice, should always be shaken, not stirred.

Love triple sec but you're convinced that the margarita is a shorts-and-T-shirt drink exclusively? Well, I disagree, but... for a great cooler weather cocktail, try a Sidecar. It replaces tequila and lime juice with brandy (cognac) and lemon juice, and salt for the rim of the glass with sugar. The traditional recipe calls for equal parts cognac, triple sec and lemon juice, shaken and strained into a cocktail glass. I prefer to lower the lemon juice quotient and up the cognac so it's the same ratio as a margarita -- three parts cognac, two parts triple sec, one part lemon juice. You've got all fall to tinker with it as you please.