The margarita is one of those cocktails whose popularity has been its downfall. At its core, it’s a respectable cocktail deserving of a place among the greats despite its relative youth. However, over the years the recipe has been reproduced, watered down and bastardized beyond the point of recognition with lesser ingredients being added for expediency and economics. (I’m looking at you, sour mix and triple sec.) Sterling Archer said it best:
Similar to other popular cocktails, the history of the margarita is a tangle of tall tales and false claims. Let’s take a look at some of the most prevalent ones.
A daisy by any other name
The Daisy was a common, one-size-fits-all Prohibition-era cocktail combining a base spirit, juice, a sweetener and soda water. It’s suggested that smugglers running booze over the border with Mexico experimented with a tequila daisy one night, calling it a margarita, which is Spanish for daisy.
Jump ahead to Tijuana circa 1938 and you’ll find Carlos “Danny” Herrera, who allegedly created the margarita at his restaurant, Rancho La Gloria, to accommodate guest Marjorie King, who was allergic to all alcohol except tequila. Using the original tequila shot (served with salt and a lime) as inspiration, Herrera recreated those flavors in a cocktail glass. Such innovation is worth remembering the next time those of us in the hospitality industry are asked to accommodate those food allergies we so often grumble about.
Another legend places its creation at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada, Mexico, in 1941. The inventor here is bartender Don Carlos Orozco, who whipped up the cocktail one day for Margarita Henkel, the daughter of the then German ambassador.
Making it official
If you’re looking for an official origin, the Mexican news service Notimex credits Francisco “Pancho” Morales with its creation at Tommy’s Place Bar in El Paso-Juárez in 1942.
This tale kind of smacks of one-percenter entitlement. Margarita Sames was a Dallas socialite who claimed to have invented the margarita, which she humbly named after herself, for guests at a Christmas party at her Acapulco home in 1948. According to the story, guest and hotel magnate Tommy Hilton liked it so much he added it to bar menus at his properties. Despite this story gaining some traction thanks to being featured in Esquire magazine in 1953, it appears Sames actually claimed an existing recipe as her own. By 1948, the margarita was already known in bars around Mexico. Stateside, the first American importer of Jose Cuervo tequila had been advertising the cocktail using the tagline, “Margarita: it’s more than a girl’s name,” since 1945. Nice try, Marge.
Hold the brandy
Yet another story puts it in Galveston, Texas, in 1948 at the Balinese Room where barman Santos Cruz made the cocktail for singer Peggy (Margaret) Lee, who purportedly requested a variation on the sidecar using tequila instead of brandy.
Meanwhile, the frozen margarita, which is to the original cocktail what the Wendy’s Frosty is to ice cream, didn’t arrive on the scene until 1971, when Dallas, Texas, restaurateur Mariano Martinez decided to dump some tequila into an old soft serve machine — presumably after consuming too much tequila.
2 oz. silver tequila
1 oz. Cointreau*
1 oz. lime juice
1/2 oz. agave nectar (optional)**
Directions: Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake for 20 seconds. Strain over fresh ice or straight up into a salt-rimmed margarita glass (if available). Alternatively, serve it over ice in a tumbler, or up in cocktail or coupe glass. Garnish with a lime.
- Yes, Cointreau is pricier than generic triple sec, but the results are far superior.
- The addition of agave nectar — and omission of triple sec/Cointreau — technically makes it a Tommy’s Margarita (after the San Francisco Mexican restaurant of the same name). It’s strictly a matter of taste. Personally, I like to split the difference: reduce the Cointreau by half and add the agave.
A few words regarding sour mix: The pre-made ingredient almost ubiquitous in margaritas these days; it’s a common and, honestly not terrible, shortcut used by bars and restaurants. A quality house-made sour mix actually can be quite good. Still, I have to side with Archer here.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.