YOUR SALT-NUMBED LIPS once smacked at the sight of a frozen-margarita machine. But unless you’re Jimmy Buffet, your tastes have likely evolved toward more grown-up gulps. Luckily, margaritas and maturity needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Fete Mexico’s unlikely victory over French forces (you know, on the original Cinco de Mayo in 1862) with a toast to another improbable triumph: the spread of handcrafted tequila in America.

“When you say ‘tequila,’ people think about college days and taking shots,” says Ivan Iricanin, bar manager of Masa 14 (1825 14th St. NW; 202-328-1414), where you can peruse a list of more than 130 pure agave tequilas. “We try to educate people that tequila can be a great mixing ingredient and a great sipping drink, too.”

Though top-shelf tequila is a sip-able tipple, its earthy undertones can also enhance cocktails. “Tequila has an incredible herbaceous quality. Because of that, it has so much flexibility,” says Adam Bernbach, bar manager at Proof (775 G St. NW; 202-737-7663). He stirs a sage-green, martini-style elixir consisting of Chartreuse, blanco tequila, white port and an orange twist.

The spirit’s slow-grown smokiness is what’s missing from many margaritas. A well-made one should be “the perfect example of simplicity and balance in a cocktail,” says Cheryl Charming, author of “Just Margaritas and Sangrias” ($10, Lyons Press). The trick is nailing the ratio of strong, weak, sweet and sour. At Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (401 7th St. NW; 202-628-1005), general manager Steve Fowler sticks to a classic recipe that calls for two parts blanco tequila to one part Triple Sec or Cointreau and fresh-squeezed lime juice.

Masa 14’s Iricanin slings a crisper cocktail by omitting the orange liqueur. His recipe: half a lime, an ounce of light agave syrup (or simple syrup), and an ounce and a half of reposado tequila, shaken well and served on the rocks. On Cinco de Mayo, Masa 14 will also serve $5 classic, hibiscus, blueberry, tamarind and coconut margaritas, plus a tequila-tasting sampler.

Inspired bartenders — and a few mad ones, too — have twisted margaritas a million ways. “These days, ordering a margarita is like saying, ‘Give me a martini,'” says Jason Robey, bartender at Woodley Park’s New Heights Restaurant (2317 Calvert St. NW; 202-234-4110). “The sky is really the limit with tequila.”

To make sure yours stays on the right side of crazy, stick to fresh ingredients, from muddled pineapple and watermelon to spicy jalapeno. Or, splash in some ginger liqueur or olive juice (for an Austin favorite called the Mexican Martini). Charming likes to swap Triple Sec for raspberry Chambord, vanilla Tuaca or melon Midori.

Once you’ve mastered the margarita, you might try the Paloma, a fizzy highball with Jamaican Ting or any other grapefruit soda. But no matter how you drink the stuff, choose a high-quality tequila as your base. “It doesn’t have to be expensive,” Fowler says. “It just has to be 100 percent blue agave.”

» Tequila 101: From Blanco to Anejo, the Inside Scoop On the Good Stuff

Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Marge Ely/Express