Florida Drinks – The Sour Orange Margarita

Behold: The Sour Orange.

One of my passions is Florida (as evidenced by, well, everything I do, but if you need more proof, check out my Florida-only blog, Finding My Florida.) I love Florida so much I have a master’s degree in it. Seriously. I went through the Florida Studies program at USF St. Petersburg. This involved more work than most people think. One of the classes I took, Florida Foodways, made people chuckle and say, “Yeah, right. That sounds hard.”

I received an A-minus in that class, y’all. The classes people thought sounded more respectable? A or A-plus. My teacher was tough. Perhaps because I dumped itching powder down his shirt when we attended high school together and then didn’t remember him or it when he showed up as my professor 20 years later. Karma, man. It’s a bitch.

ANYWAY, for that class, for my semester research project I decided to research the history of the Florida cocktail. For those of you who think this may mean I spent four months boozing it up, sorry to disappoint, but no. I spent four months digging for scraps of cocktail history. Which is totally a thing, because haven’t you ever wondered who got to decide the name of the margarita, or why we even call it a cocktail? Also, isn’t that sort of history infinitely more interesting than memorizing a list of names and dates?

Muddle key limes with brown sugar and Tupelo honey.

Despite the proliferation of what I like to call “get-‘er-done” cocktails (and I think, if you’ve ever seen those determined spring breakers in a bar, that requires no further explanation), Florida doesn’t have as rich of a cocktail history as I’d hoped. In 1961, a bartender in Fort Lauderdale did invent the Florida Derby, which is another blog post for another day, but beyond that, we can claim precious few cocktails.

A few months after that class ended, a Florida Studies field trip led me to some privately-held wilderness just north of Lake Okeechobee, along Fisheating Creek. Kids love Disney; Florida Studies students feel the same way about Florida wilderness. Let me bounce around a swampy forest for a few days and I’m happy as a Cedar Key clam. On this trip I discovered sour oranges. They looked like bumpy orange lemons on steroids (not all sour oranges are bumpy.)

Sour oranges, also called Seville oranges, come from southeast Asia, by way of Arabia to Sicily to Seville, Spain. That was in the twelfth century. If I say the word “orange” to you today, you think of the juicy Valencias used for orange juice, the seedless navels you can eat without picking out seeds, or the sweet honeybells available for a narrow window every year. However, for 500 years, the bitter Seville orange was the only orange in Europe. It was also the first orange to make it to America, and today some orange groves still grow it. In south Florida, where I found it in 2008, it grows wild in places, thought to be old Seminole settlements.

Now, how did I get from that stand of trees to margaritas? Well, I came home from Fisheating Creek with a pile of these oranges, and I needed to do something with them. There are exactly three things you can do with sour oranges (although I’m open to finding more): Marinade pork, make sour orange pie, or poke cloves in them and use them for decoration at Christmas.

Now, although we have that Florida Derby drink, it doesn’t make me think of Florida when I drink it. Margaritas, however, do, and not because of Jimmy Buffet. No, margaritas should be the official Florida drink is because of the mixers. You see, everything in a margarita – except the tequila – is citrus. As a bartender, I learned to make a margarita with a five-four-three-two count: Five counts tequila, four counts triple sec, three counts sour mix, and one count sweetened lime juice. Triple sec is a thrice-distilled orange-flavored liqueur. The chief difference between liquor and liqueur, incidentally, is the addition of sugar.

A note about sour mix: The prepackaged stuff is way overpriced, has too many non-food things in it, and way high in sugar. You can make your own for almost no money and just as little effort. Read this post to learn how.

My margaritas are tequila, triple sec, sour oranges, key limes, Tupelo honey and brown Florida sugar. EVERYTHING about this (except the tequila) screams “Florida.”

Here’s how I make my sour orange margaritas:


Four key limes
1-2 tsp. brown sugar
1-2 tsp. Tupelo or other Florida honey
Triple sec
Sour orange juice
Key lime juice


1. Take four key limes, cut in half, and put in a cocktail shaker. Muddle with one teaspoon brown sugar and one teaspoon Florida honey (I use Tupelo when I have it, but you can also use orange blossom or other local honey.) You can adjust the amount of sugar to work for you, and also dependent on exactly how bitter an orange you have.

2. Squirt a two count of key lime juice into the mixture. I have a tree, so I squeeze my own juice when I can and keep it refrigerated in a reused lemon juice squeeze bottle. If you can’t get fresh Florida key limes (off season the ones in the stores come from Mexico) you can almost always find the juice. Swirl around. This is because that honey will need some help mixing.

3. Shake like hell. Seriously, otherwise you won’t get any sweet in the bitter and you’ll think I’m a nutbar for talking up this margarita.

Shake. Seriously, people.

4. Add ice and pour a 10 count of tequila over the ice.

5. Shake again. I can’t stress this enough.

6. Add an eight count of triple sec and a six count of sour orange juice. (Note that I do not use sour mix; the sugars I add with the key limes and the sour orange juice replace it.).

7. Shake like hell.

8. If you’re the sort who likes your margaritas with salt, rim a glass with key lime juice and roll the edge in brown sugar. Trust me.

9. Pack the glass with ice and strain the perfect Florida cocktail through the shaker.

10. There you have it: the Sour Orange Margarita.

Sour oranges are in season right now, so if you have a local orange shop near you, call and ask if they have sour oranges. If they do, go grab some and try it. You won’t be sorry.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.

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