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Cocktails 101: The Margarita

Everything you need to know about this classic drink

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As Cinco de Mayo's unofficial calling card, and the backbone of Jimmy Buffett and Bethenny "Skinnygirl" Frankel's empires, it's easy to lose sight of the margarita's importance in the world of cocktails. The drink's simple and approachable mix of tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice promises good times to come—whether as a happy hour special or a gateway to the world of tequila. This most classic blue agave vehicle has been enjoyed as a frozen blended drink, a diet-friendly cocktail, and a warm weather staple. Below, everything you need to know about the margarita's history, tips and techniques, recipes, and variations.

History of the Margarita

With classic cocktails, the origin of names and recipes are often lost in time. But the margarita is likely the only libation where namesakes come out of the woodwork to claim responsibility for the drink, either as creator or muse. So, who really inspired the margarita?

Many would love to believe it was silver screen star Rita Hayworth. As a teenager during the 1930s, the then-unknown ingénue, née Margarita Cansino, performed at Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico where it's said the cocktail was created in her honor.

Others claim that the margarita was born at a Tijuana restaurant circa 1938. Carlos "Danny" Herrera, owner of Rancho La Gloria, created the tipple for Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Marjorie King, who was sadly allergic to all hard liquor except, inexplicably, tequila. But, since she also couldn't stand to drink the spirit straight, Cointreau, lemon juice, and a glass rimmed with salt were added to make it more palatable.

Meanwhile, legend has it that in 1941, Margarita Henkel, the daughter of a German ambassador, happened in on bartender Don Carlos Orozco at a bar in Ensenada, Mexico, who was developing a new cocktail. Since she helped taste test his creation, he christened it with her name in gratitude.

And yet another story says the drink derives its name from a flower, and not a woman, even though the purported creator's wife was named Margarita. In 1942, that man, head bartender Francisco "Pancho" Morales, was working at an El Paso–Juárez bar (at the Mexican-American border) called Tommy’s Place, when a patron requested a drink he didn't know how to make: the Magnolia—built with brandy, Cointreau, egg yolk, and topped with Champagne. Too embarrassed to admit his ignorance, he made up his own concoction. The impromptu creation impressed the customer so much that Morales dubbed it the margarita, after the flower, to keep in theme with the Magnolia.

But the margarita's most circulated origin story is of Texas socialite Margarita Sames who claimed to have thrown the cocktail ingredients together while hosting one of her two-week ragers in Acapulco, Mexico in 1948. Her well-connected friends—movie star John Wayne, hotel magnate Tommy Hilton, and L.A.'s iconic Tail o' the Cock restaurant owner Shelton McHenrywere so enamoured with Sames' cocktail that they spread the word. And her story even appeared in a 1953 issue of Esquire, which marked the margarita's first printed mention.

Despite all the romantic tales of cocktail tributes and beautiful women, however, it's more than likely that the margarita is simply a tequila version of the pre-Prohibition cocktail the Daisy—"margarita" being the Spanish word for "daisy"—with lime and grenadine. Or, it's a variation of the Picador, a cocktail whose similar recipe was first printed in William Tarling's Cafe Royal Cocktail Book in England in 1937.

Regardless of the margarita's origin, it wasn't until 1971 that the cocktail underwent the first of many transformations on its way to the hearts of American drinkers.

Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez wanted an easier and faster way to make blended margaritas, which had proliferated American bars since the 1950s. Finding inspiration from a 7-Eleven Slurpee machine, he retrofitted a soft serve ice cream machine to dispense the slushie cocktail for his new Mexican restaurant, Mariano's. However, he found that in order for the machine to turn out a great-tasting product, he had to add a lot of sugar to his father's margarita recipe. And boom! the very first frozen margarita machine was conceived (it now resides within the Smithsonian).

The appliance's ease of use and countless fruity flavor options—from strawberry to watermelon to pomegranate to mango—was a natural fit for the newly popular wave of Tex-Mex restaurants that spread throughout the country in the '70s and '80s, and other models of the frozen margarita machine began to appear. Eventually, the frosty drink, like the daiquiri at that time, made its way to sports bars, college bars, poolside and beachside bars, dominating the era which many consider the dark age for cocktails.

The frozen margarita machine was also popularized by singer Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville song, which he released during the late '70s. Then, about a decade later in 1987, he opened his first Margaritaville restaurant in Key West, Florida, and that initial location went on to grow into an empire of restaurants, hotels, and beverage products.

Frozen margarita mixes and machines (aka branded blenders) infiltrated consumers' homes in the '80s, granting the beholder a vacation in a cup. Because bar-goers became accustomed to the dispensed sugary cocktail, Day-Glo green margarita premixers took the place of the classic at bars. All a bartender had to do was add tequila.

But hope for a better cocktail eventually appeared in the form of a stripped-down version of the classic margarita recipe. In 1990, Julio Berjemo, who was bartending at his family's Mexican restaurant, Tommy's, in San Francisco, decided the orange liqueur traditionally added to a margarita didn't pair well with the drink's tequila. So, he swapped it for agave nectar, which enhanced the agave spirit's flavor. This clean sipper groomed the margarita for the upcoming cocktail renaissance and made Berjemo—now an American ambassador of Mexico’s National Chamber for the Tequila Industrya living legend among bartenders.

Tommy's Margarita highlighted the difference natural ingredients can make in a cocktail. Fast-forward to present day, and the craft cocktail trendwhich evangelized the importance of fresh ingredients and quality spiritsmade the poor quality frozen margarita obsolete. And today, according to a 2016 consumer survey, the margarita is the most popular cocktail in America, followed by the daiquiri.

Jason Eisner's Perfect Margarita. [All Photos by Stan Lee]

Jason Eisner's Tips for the Perfect Margarita


For advice on how to make the best-tasting margarita, we went to Jason Eisner, bar manager of Los Angeles' vegan Mexican eatery Gracias Madre, which offers one of the city's best curated agave spirit lists in town. There, Eisner sells about 1,000 margaritas a night.

1) Pay attention to water content. What most people don't know about cocktails, in general, is that water is a very important ingredient. Especially in a margarita! Water is used to not only make a drink cold, but when shaken with other ingredients, ice is broken down from both alcohol and agitation (the act of shaking), and contributes 15 to 20 percent water by volume to the overall recipe. This softens the other ingredients that some people find harsh. In the case of a margarita, lime juice can be highly acidic and a turn-off for some, so the perfect number of shakes is essential. When your tin is frosty and sweating on the outside, you're generally good to go.

2) Fine strain your margarita into a double rocks glass and add fresh (new) rocks! This will not only save the appearance of your cocktail, but slow down the additional watering-down process. We want water to soften the cocktail, not obliterate the nuances! Also, the act of fine straining will take out any additional pulp that some people don't like.

3) Salt early. When most people think about salt in a margarita, they only think about the rim. However, salt is an amazing modifier to balance out the sweet nature of agave nectar. So, when building your recipe in a cocktail shaker, add one pinch of either kosher salt or pink Himalayan salt to the drink as well. This will mellow out the agave's sweetness and had a tinge of umami to your cocktail.

4) Have fun with rim salts. You can create a list of proprietary salts that will give extra depth of flavor and aroma to your cocktail—all you need is salt, a Ball jar, and a modifier! You can use toasted lime zest, edible flowers, or herbs such as sage, or rosemary to create a salt that will ultimately give your own personal stamp to the classic margarita.

5) Only use organic ingredients. Everything starts with a commitment to quality. To start, only use fresh lime juice. Owning a Mexican Beehive Juicer means you will always have fresh lime juice, and you can bring it with you no matter where you go! Most importantly, make sure you are only using 100 percent Blue Weber Agave from a tequila company that is transparent about their business and farming practices. Check the NOM ("Norma Oficial Mexicana," or "Official Mexican Standard") on every bottle of tequila. The NOM identifier is a number you can locate on any bottle of legitimate tequila that confirms it meets the standards of the tequila regulatory council, or CRT, which is akin to the French regulatory council (AOC) that governs the country's wine regions. Support local, artisan tequila makers!

VARIATIONS

  • Blended margarita: When properly made, this variation on the classic margarita hits the spot. Add lime, triple sec, simple syrup, tequila, and ice to a blender and give it a whirr.
  • Cadillac margarita: Talk about marketing genius! There was a point in time where the Cadillac was considered the ultimate in American luxury, and to some it still is. So how does one make a Cadillac margarita? Simply float Grand Marnier atop a classic margarita. Created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, Grand Marnier is a combination of brandy, essence of bitter orange, and sugar.
  • Tommy's Margarita: To make a Tommy's, you simply mix tequila, lime, and agave. Most of the best cocktails ever made are just three ingredients, and the Tommy's Margarita is no exception.
  • Beerita: What goes well with a light-bodied golden brewski? How about lime and salt. Get yourself a great Mexican pale lager like Cerveza Minerva Union (a Mexican craft beer), and add a fat pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lime. However, be careful. The salt might react with the beer's carbon dioxide and could have you cleaning beer up off the floor.
  • Paloma: Palomas are a bit of a margarita twist that uses an alternative source of citrus (grapefruit) and soda water to create an effervescent experience.

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Editor: Kat Odell

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