The History of the Margarita
The margarita, a classic tequila cocktail has a unique and rich history.
Feb. 10, 2020
I. The Debut of the Margarita
The first time the world heard about the Margarita—one of the world’s indispensable cocktails and the drink that turned tequila from an obscure Mexican novelty into something that every bar had to stock—was in December, 1953, in the pages of Esquire Magazine. “She’s from Mexico, Señores,” the little item in the “Painting the Town with Esquire” column read, “and her name is the Margarita Cocktail—and she is lovely to look at, exciting and provocative.” The recipe that followed is precisely what we would recognize today as a standard “Margarita, up:”: tequila, lime juice, triple sec, salt rim on the stemmed glass.
The world is a big place, though, and it would take another couple of years for the drink to really get going. The evidence suggests that it was Vern Underwood, a Los Angeles liquor importer and distributor, who really got things going when he noticed that one of his accounts, McHenry’s Tail o’ the Cock restaurant, was selling more tequila than the rest put together. He investigated, found that the Margarita was to blame, and took to advertising the drink both locally and around the country. That was some time in 1955. Over the next couple of years, the Margarita starts popping up in newspapers from coast to coast. By the middle of the 1960s, the Margarita was everywhere.
II. The Margarita Inventors
Any time a cocktail reaches widespread popularity, people start wondering who invented it and under what circumstances, and the Margarita is no exception. The answer is rarely straightforward: cocktails are rarely created in the full light of history. Some bartender has a clever little idea, shakes it up and tests it out on a couple of the customers. A clever name is suggested. Slowly it moves from bar to bar and town to town, just another drink among the many that people order, until for whatever reason it suddenly catches on. Then you’ve got a thousand barstool detectives trying to walk back the cat; to figure out how it got here and where it came from.
With the Margarita, that process started as early as January, 1955. That’s when the nightlife columnist from a suburban Los Angeles newspaper asked around and found John Durlesser, the head bartender at the Tail o’ the Cock and the dean of Los Angeles mixologists, and the story that he invented the drink “way back in 1937, when tequila first appeared here.” In 1966, Durlesser, still in the same job, elaborated for Bon Appetit magazine: it was actually 1936, and he “was asked to duplicate a drink a lady customer had once tasted in Mexico.” Her name was Margaret, and he named the drink after her.
By 1966, however, another claimant had been thrust forward: three years before, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, noting all the fuss about the Margarita, wrote that “Santos Cruz . . . originated the drink in the 1940s at the Studio Lounge in Galveston,” mixing it for the great jazz singer Peggy Lee when she asked for “a tequila drink without a lot of mess in it.” Cruz, as he later recalled, simply made her something he’d been playing with lately, a tequila version of a Sidecar. Her husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, named it “Margarita” (“Peggy” being short for Margaret and the drink being in a Latin key).
The 1970s would see another couple of claimants pushed forward, when Teddy “Mr. Acapulco” Stauffer, the Swiss-born bandleader-nightclub owner who basically put the place on the map, claimed that Margaret “Margarita” Sames, a Texas socialite who had a house in Acapulco, invented the drink there in the late 1940s. It was 1948, Sames later claimed, and she invented it for a Christmas party at her house for several prominent American guests. Finally, in 1974, Texas Monthly magazine devoted an article to Francisco “Pancho” Morales and his claim to have invented the drink in 1942 at Tommy’s Place in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, when an American lady (one detects a certain theme) came in and asked for a Magnolia, a drink he couldn’t remember. So, too proud to admit that he didn’t know it, he faked something up. In support of his claim, Morales showed the reporter his original recipe, “recorded on a stack of old bar tabs with the preprinted date of ‘________, 194_.’”
In a nutshell, that recipe of Morales’s represents the whole problem here: each of these claims, when you dig into it, has enough evidence to mark it as plausible (there are several others for which that can’t be said). In fact, Durlesser’s and Sames’s may refer to the same episode: one of the guests at Sames’s famous party was Shelton McHenry, Durlesser’s boss. (Sure, the dates don’t line up, but we don’t have Durlesser’s actual testimony and there might more to the story.) In any case, we’re left with at least three and maybe four credible claims to the invention of the Margarita.
III. The Tequila Drink
In cases like this, it pays to take a step back; to look at just how this venerable Mexican spirit worked its way into the American mixed drink in the first place. Before Prohibition, tequila was a novelty spirit, rarely encountered outside the border regions where you might find the occasional simple Tequila Cocktail (with sugar and bitters) or Tequila Punch (with sugar and citrus). There were American bars in Mexico that made similar things, but for the most part mixing tequila drinks wasn’t part of Mexican culture. Then the Prohibition years brought vast numbers of Americans to Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican border towns, where they mostly drank—to be perfectly honest—English gin and Canadian whisky and Cuban rum. But there were adventurous souls among them, and bartenders—both native Mexicans and exiled Americans—began working tequila into their repertoires.
After Repeal in 1933 some of those adventurous drinkers kept drinking tequila, particularly in Los Angeles, where menus from local Mexican restaurants in the late 1930s show a surprising number of tequila drinks (a 1937 publicity campaign to give Los Angeles more “atmosphere” by playing up its Mexican heritage through things like putting “tequila cocktails at the top of all refreshment lists” might have helped). Take the Café Caliente, on Downtown LA’s touristy Olvera St. In 1939, its elaborate menu offered, besides the regular Old-Fashioneds, Martinis and Manhattans you could get anywhere, a tequila-based Caliente Cocktail, along with a Tequila Daisy, Sunrise, Fizz, Sour and Cocktail. Still, none of these is a Margarita.
But what about the “Picador,” one of fifteen tequila drinks found in the cocktail book put out in 1937 by the Café Royal in far-off London? (Somebody tried importing tequila to the UK back then, and bartenders being bartenders, mixology ensued.) Its ingredients are tequila, lime juice and triple-sec orange liqueur. A Margarita, in other words. And what about the “Tequila,” a drink found in the Sours section of the cocktail book veteran New York bartender Charlie Connolly wrote for the famous Cotton Club in 1939? It’s the same as the Picador, but even adds a salt rim. One’s impulse is to point to one of these and say, “there’s your first Margarita, right there.” Alas, like all evolutionary history, Cocktail history is full of dead ends, and as far as we can tell that’s what we’ve got here: the world learned to love something called a “Margarita,” not a “Picador” or a “Tequila Sour,” and it didn’t learn it from New York or London. These recipes do show us that the combination of tequila, citrus and orange liqueur was to some degree a natural one; that it’s one that kept coming up.
IV. The Tequila Daisy
There’s a reason for that, one that transcends mere deliciousness. It involves a very old drink known as the “Daisy.” Invented some time in the early 1870s at Fred Eberlin’s bar, around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange, the Tequila Daisy is simply a shot of booze shaken up with some lemon juice and “orange cordial” (as Jerry Thomas’s 1876 recipe puts it), strained into a large cocktail glass and topped off with a little splash of soda. The original version was made with whiskey, but soon all the main liquors were represented and the Daisy became one of the standard drinks. It was in all the bar books—including, it should be noted, E. Moreno’s Manual del Cantinero, published in Mexico City in 1910. By then, however, the Daisy had begun to evolve, as drinks do, and there were two versions. Traditionalists like Moreno stuck with the orange liqueur version, served straight up in a cocktail glass with only a little soda, if any. Others went new-school, replacing the orange liqueur with grenadine and serving the drink in a tall glass with a good splash of soda and plenty of cracked ice.
At some point in the mid-1920s, a customer walked up to Henry Madden, the bartender at the Turf Bar on Main Street in Tijuana and asked for a Gin Daisy. “In mixing [the] drink,” as he told a reporter in 1936, “I grabbed the wrong bottle”—the tequila bottle. Result: “the customer was so delighted that he called for another and spread the good news far and wide.” By the mid-1930s, the drink was all over Mexico. There was only one problem: Madden didn’t give out his recipe, and we don’t know which sort of Daisy he made. It was probably the grenadine one, but we can’t be sure. In any case, if in the 1930s or 1940s you asked the average Los Angeles (or Galveston, or Juarez) bartender for a Tequila Daisy, there’s a good chance he’d reach for the orange liqueur. And he might just put a salt rim on the glass, since the orange liqueur Daisy is a close cousin to the Sidecar, with its sugar rim, and everybody knew that you drank tequila with salt back then. And he might just call the thing a “Margarita,” since that’s the Spanish word for “Daisy.” (That’s what Pancho Morales remembered doing, anyway, although he said he named it after the flower itself; perhaps). So it’s perfectly possible that several different people legitimately invented the Margarita. In other words, they may all have been right.
V. Catching up the Story
At the beginning of the 1960s, every Mexican restaurant in America knew how to make a Margarita. By the beginning of the next decade, practically every bar did—particularly once “Margaritaville,” Jimmy Buffet’s 1977 top-ten hit, did its work. Once drinks reach such universal popularity, however, they begin to mutate. Already by 1961 people were whirling the things around in a blender to make frozen margaritas. Ten years later, Mariano Martinez, a young Dallas restaurateur, tired of orders backing up while his bartenders monkeyed with the blender, bought an old soft-serve ice cream machine and adapted it to shoot forth slushy Margaritas. Massive hit (in 2005, his original machine went to the Smithsonian). Others were tinkering with the ingredients, adding strawberries or other fruits to the mix, or even beer (thus Broadway star Chita Rivera, back in the 1970s; her version also used frozen limeade, a popular shortcut). Most of these variations were in addition to the standard tequila-lime-triple sec and served to hide the mixto tequila’s agave flavor. Around 1990, however, Julio Bermejo, tending bar at Tommy’s, his parent’s Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, came up with a variation that broke open the sacred trinity of ingredients, but did it to enhance the agave, not mask it. His “Tommy’s Margarita,” with agave nectar instead of the triple sec, has become a modern classic.
The most important thing that the modern age has brought to the Margarita, though, is another agave-enhancer. That’s the move away from the cheap mixto tequilas—tequilas distilled from a blend of agave and sugarcane—that dominated the Margarita market from the 1960s through the 1980s towards the richer-textured, more flavorful ones distilled from 100% agave. Here, Patrón tequila (launched in 1989) has performed an invaluable service by convincing millions of drinkers that the extra cost of pure agave tequila is a worthwhile expenditure. With Patrón leading the charge, the state of the art Margarita has evolved from a slushy concoction of sour mix, cheap triple sec and something that vaguely tastes like tequila back to the rich and deep-flavored hand-shaken mix of fresh lime juice, quality orange liqueur and real tequila that it was when Esquire magazine first encountered it back in 1953.
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David Wondrich, Esquire magazine's longtime Drinks Correspondent, is widely hailed as the world’s foremost authority on the history of the cocktail and one of the founders of the modern craft cocktail movement. He is the author of the hugely influential 2007 book Imbibe!, the first cocktail book to win a James Beard award (he published an extensively revised edition in 2015), and the widely-acclaimed 2010 Punch, which got people drinking things out of bowls again.
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