Summer in Texas always comes with scorching outdoor temperatures, so Lone Star imbibers are understandably drawn to beverages with plenty of refreshment potential. That's why ranch water, a mega-simple cocktail allegedly invented by a West Texas rancher during the mid-20th century, can be found at bars and restaurants from Houston to El Paso and everywhere in between.
Ranch water is extremely popular in Texas, and it's quickly spreading through the United States. However, it hasn't always been the most obvious cocktail for TX bartenders to learn, according to food & beverage manager Lance Posey of Hotel Granduca in Austin:
"Years ago, while bartending at the White Buffalo Bar in Marathon, TX, a group of cowboys requested a 'ranch water'. I had never heard of the drink, but I was quickly educated when I returned with 8 large glasses of regular water [and the cowboys explained what they really meant]. I then made the 'ranch water' cocktail for them, and it remains one of my favorite drinks to make."
When we asked lead bartender Bri Taylor of El Chingon in Fort Worth to define ranch water, she gave us a straightforward explanation:
"Ranch water is a Texas-style, bubbly cocktail-- it's a twist on a house margarita that offers the tangy lime, but with less sweetness." This summary makes perfect sense, since ranch water is, for all intents and purposes, a very simplified spin on the margarita, consisting of only tequila, lime juice, and sparkling water.
Traditionally, ranch water uses blanco tequila as its base spirit. That said, Taylor does say that she'll use "whichever tequila our customer selects" to make it, indicating that there isn't a hard-and-fast rule on the tequila style. However, it is crucially important to use fresh lime juice. Bottled lime juice often features added sugar, and since a crisp, tangy cocktail without overwhelming sweetness is the goal here, you'll want to pull out your juicer and get the real stuff.
Finally, ranch water requires sparkling water, and any Texan will tell you that the one true sparkling water suitable for this purpose is Topo Chico. This Mexican-made seltzer has more carbonation than many competitors, resulting in an especially effervescent ranch water. But if you don't have access to Topo, you can certainly make ranch water with whichever sparkling water you prefer.
The beauty of ranch water rests on its simplicity-- frankly, the only way to mess up this cocktail would be to add too many extra ingredients. However, a few small deviations from the tequila-lime-Topo Chico model can bolster the drink's existing flavors without compromising its refreshing nature.
For instance, Posey likes to whip up a lime and sea salt foam to put on top of ranch water, which gives the drink "a refreshing twist. It makes for the perfect cocktail to sip outdoors on the patio or by the pool." Beverage director Ben Smith of Provision in Austin adds a couple of dashes of lemon bitters to the drink, which complements the tartness with a hint of bitterness, creating a nicely balanced cocktail. Also, several of our sources suggested rimming the glass with Tajin (a chili-lime-salt seasoning from Mexico), which lends your ranch water a bit of spice without overwhelming the other flavors.
Finally, general manager David Vincent of Desert Door Distillery in Driftwood reiterates that the blanco tequila in your ranch water can be swapped out for a different agave spirit. Have mezcal on hand? Use that instead! No blanco tequila, just reposado tequila? You can still make a great ranch water. Or follow Vincent's advice and use sotol, an agave spirit made from the desert spoon plant which features grassy, herbaceous notes. Of course, he particularly recommends Desert Door Sotol, telling us that "ranch Water is the unofficial drink of West Texas. The vegetal, earthy taste of Desert Door Sotol blends well with the minerals from the Topo Chico and the tartness of the lime. It makes a perfect cooling libation to quench your thirst from the Texas heat."
- 1.5 oz silver/blanco tequila (Taylor recommends Jose Cuervo traditional silver but you can use any agave spirit you prefer)
- 0.5 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
- Topo Chico to finish
- Tajin and chamoy for the rim
- Rim a 16-oz highball glass with Tajin and chamoy. Fill the glass with ice cubes or crushed ice.
- Add tequila and lime juice and, if you like, stir with a bar spoon to combine. Then, top the glass off with Topo Chico.