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Once upon a time in Mexico

The origin of the Margarita

Once upon a time in Mexico... someone invented the Margarita. Or did they? Naren Young attempts to untangle the history of this iconic tequila cocktail and trawls the world for modern spins on an international bestseller


Let’s get one thing straight: no-one really knows who invented the Margarita. The first mention in print of a Margarita cocktail is in the December 1953 issue of Esquire magazine where it states simply that, ‘She’s from Mexico, Señores, and she is lovely to look at, exciting and provocative’. That recipe only called for an ounce (30ml) of tequila, a dash of triple sec and the juice of half a lime or lemon. While it was certainly one of the earliest tequila cocktails, the very first – according to drinks historian Greg Boehm – goes to the Young Man’s Delight, mentioned in My New Cocktail Book (1930) by G. F. Steele.

In the iconic Café Royal Cocktail Book, published in 1937, author William J. Tarling mentions a drink called a Picador, which lists as its ingredients tequila, Cointreau and lime juice. Sound familiar?

One could argue (quite rightfully) that the Margarita is simply a tequila Sidecar (with lime instead of lemon), a cocktail which had been in circulation for at least a decade prior to the Margarita’s ascent in the mid 1930s. So while there were no drinks at this time called a Margarita, there were certainly prototypes with the same recipe being made under different names. 

I actually find it difficult to believe

that a Mexican invented this drink as Mexico

has never had a cocktail culture

The most common – and perhaps widely believed – story involves an American socialite of the 1940s called Margaret ‘Margarita’ Sames. This Dallas native was known for throwing lavish parties at her Acapulco holiday home and she credits herself (what self-respecting socialite wouldn’t?) with creating the drink in 1948. Though ask yourself: when was the last time you saw such a person pick up a cocktail shaker and morph into a mixologist? Soon Paris Hilton will be claiming she invented the Cosmo. But also negating this story is the undeniable fact that Jose Cuervo was running Margarita
ad campaigns as early as 1945. Sorry, Marge.

Carlos ‘Danny’ Herrera – whose obituary in 1992 states that it was he who created the Margarita – opened the Rancho La Gloria restaurant just south of Tijuana in 1935 with his wife. His family claimed that he invented the drink around 1938 for one of his customers – a showgirl and sometime actress who called herself Marjorie King. Apparently she was allergic to all hard liquor except tequila, and she didn’t like to drink that straight. Hmm, I don’t see how someone would be allergic to all spirits except tequila but let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. 

I actually find it difficult to believe that a Mexican invented this drink although it is completely possible that it was invented on Mexican soil. This is because Mexico has never had a cocktail culture, and to this day Margaritas are never consumed by the locals.

It is quite possible that the drink was created sometime during or just after Prohibition. During the Great Experiment, rich Americans fled their homeland en masse in search of well-created drinks, served in public. Cuba, London and Paris were popular destinations, as was Mexico, especially Tijuana which is just a stone’s throw from the border. 

RACEY RITA

One oasis for the rich and famous was the Agua Caliente Race Track, which opened in 1929. Danny Negrete, who worked at the track in 1944, is also credited with creating the drink at the Garci Crespo Hotel in 1936 for his sister-in-law, Margarita, as a wedding present. Or it could have been named for Margarita Cansino (later known as Rita Hayworth) who as a teenager in the early 1930s would perform at, guess where, the Caliente.

It is quite possible that the

drink was created some time during or

just after Prohibition

Meanwhile, yet another theory concerns the Daisy, a cocktail which had its own time in the limelight during the early 20th century to a point where the Albuquerque Journal of 19 July 1939 called it ‘ubiquitous’.

There have been many incarnations of this once popular libation, one of which included a base spirit mixed with citrus and curaçao. Again, we see our Margarita starting to take shape. Even though there are several mentions of Tequila Daisies as early as 1936 in the Syracuse Herald, almost none of them actually cite a specific recipe. For reasons unknown, the Daisy eventually went to the great cocktail cemetery in the sky but it would seem plausible that the Spanish word for Daisy (Margarita) was simply translated and thenceforth took its place in the cocktail pantheon as the Margarita.


THE MARGARITA MECCA

Tommy’s restaurant in San Francisco has become a place of pilgrimage for many bartenders around the world, thanks in no small part to the hospitality and generosity of industry legend Julio Bermejo. This tiny bar in the middle of nowhere boasts over 400 tequilas, all of them exclusively 100% agave. His Margaritas have become so renowned in fact that they have been popping up on cocktail menus in Sydney, Berlin, Hong Kong and New York.

Bermejo does a couple of things a little differently, however. He eschews the usual orange liqueur for organic agave nectar and as far as we know was the first person to do so. Agave nectar is thick like honey and is very sweet yet has one of the lowest glycemic indexes of any sweetener, making it healthy even for diabetics. It does, however, need to be diluted with water.

Another key element to his recipe is the use of fresh lime juice. Now before you roll your eyes, we all know that any bartender worth their Maldon salt always uses fresh citrus juice. Take that as gospel. The first bar I tended in New York City had sour mix on the soda gun. No, seriously it did. Very few bars squeeze their juice to order like they do at Tommy’s. Watching Bermejo’s team hand-squeeze every single lime is quite a sight. He also gets his limes from a supplier who does not refrigerate them as they yield more juice at room temperature. 

And then there’s the tequila. Bermejo prefers a reposado as he believes it gives a little more roundness and complexity (at this time he is using Arette, a wonderful lowland expression). He told me recently: ‘Bartenders need to realise that it is not necessarily blancos that make the best Margaritas. People should drink them with whatever tequila suits their palate. The strong agave notes in a blanco aren’t for everybody.’ For the record he also makes his Margaritas without salt as he believes it masks the flavour of the drink as all you taste is salt. I’ll agree to disagree on that one. 


Sweetener taste-off
We asked Daniel Priseman of www.bittersandtwisted.com to test-drive some of the best sweeteners on the market and give them a score out of five limes.

All the sweeteners we tested can be used to make a good Margarita but some take a bit more balancing than others. In the interest of fairness we juiced a load of limes together and made a base mix of 50ml blanco tequila (Ocho) and 25ml fresh lime and then added sweetness to taste…

PARTIDA AGAVE 2 barspoons

This agave syrup is on the thick, dark and rich end of the scale. It made for a full-bodied, rich Tommy’s Margarita with notes of honey and a well-rounded sweetness. Less is more though, so don’t be too heavy-handed with this one. 0% abv.
Free to Partida Tequila stockists. Inspirit, 020 7739 1333

THE GROOVY FOOD COMPANY,  ORGANIC AGAVE NECTAR 3 b/sp

Delicate honey notes, an intense sweetness and some lighter floral flavours made a much crisper, lively Tommy’s but didn’t have the richness needed to stand up to being served on the rocks. 0% abv. £2.95/250ml. www.groovyfood.co.uk

COINTREAU 20ml

Cointreau added a hint of orange but seemed to leave an aftertaste that was slightly bitter and sharp. While it made for a good Margarita and added some depth to the drink, the aftertaste left me disappointed. 40% abv. RRP £19.99/70cl.
First Drinks, 02380 312 000

AGAVE SEC 20ml

There was a sweeter finish than either of the other two liqueur-sweetened Margaritas. The rich but subtle honey notes lengthened the drink leaving you wanting another sip. 40% abv. RRP £18.99/50cl. Mangrove, 020 8551 4966

MERLET TRIPLE SEC 20ml

This made a light and delicate Margarita and let the agave flavours from the tequila and the fresh lime do the talking. The hint of orange complimented the lime and tequila beautifully. 40% abv. RRP £20.82/70cl. Inspirit, 020 7739 1333


View to a tequila

Is there a perfect style of tequila for the Margarita? Of course not. Is there a perfect gin for a Martini? Each style of tequila – whether it be 100% agave blanco, reposado, añejo or extra añejo (let’s not waste our time on mixto please) – will bring a totally unique character to any Margarita. And each one, when mixed in the right hands, will undoubtedly taste sublime. 


BLANCO – will offer up peppery notes and hints of citrus (especially in a good expression from the highlands of Jalisco) while one from the lowlands might show more of those earthy, vegetal characters typical of Tequila Valley. A blanco Margarita will essentially be brighter and sharper with more of the natural agave flavours of the tequila coming through. 


REPOSADO – will give some warmer notes of honey, spice and vanilla (depending on the brand and how long it spends in wood). For instance, a Margarita made with Herradura, which spends 11 months in oak (the longest of any reposado), will have a much deeper finish than one made with, say, Ocho, which spends just over two months in oak (the legal minimum). 


AÑEJO – will be even richer again, perhaps showing more pronounced notes of oak, spice, caramel and butterscotch. In 2005 a new category – Extra Añejo – was created by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila and describes those tequilas that are aged over three years. These can be extremely expensive and as you might expect they show very intense notes of oak, chocolate, vanilla and marmalade (among other things). It would be rare to see these mixed into a Margarita (although a recent experiment at Tommy’s restaurant in San Francisco with the El Tesoro Paradiso yielded a delightful result).


Margaritas moved on
As with all classic cocktails, inventing twists on the original is a common pastime for mixologists. We asked some leading bartenders to share their variations

PINEAPPLE & SAGE MARGARITA

From Margarita Rocks by Henry Besant and Dre Masso,
chosen by Steffin Oghene –Green & Red, London 

‘Pineapple and sage is a combination made in heaven and the pineapple gives a beautiful foam to the drink. We use Herradura reposado for its full body and earthy flavours.’

Glass: Coupette

Garnish: Floating sage leaf

Method: Muddle the sage and pineapple, shake all ingredients and fine strain into glass.

50ml Herradura reposado

15ml fresh lime juice

15ml agave nectar

5ml pineapple juice

3 sage leaves

4 chunks pineapple


THE ALGERIAN TYPIST

By Eben Klemm – Dos Caminos, New York

‘I created this drink to underscore some of the great secondary flavours that are found in agave spirits – think smoke, earth, pepper, flowers and citrus. This recipe rounds all the secondary flavours out. This is a very integral drink – if just one flavour is removed from this cocktail then it completely falls apart.’

Glass: Cocktail

Garnish: Pineapple leaf and wedge

Method: Shake and strain into glass.

30ml Siembra Azul blanco

30ml Sombra Mezcal

15ml agave nectar

7.5ml St Germain

15ml pineapple juice

15ml fresh lime juice

¼ barspoon harissa paste


SMOKING STONED FRUIT

By Reza Esmaili – Conduit, San Francisco

‘Indicative of San Francisco style, this seasonally driven tequila cocktail draws its roots from the Tequila Daisy updated with rich white peach and smoked elements.’

Glass: Cocktail

Garnish: Slice of charred peach

Method: Shake and double strain into a glass.

35ml Partida blanco

15ml Del Maguey Minero Mezcal

30ml fresh white peach purée

15ml honey syrup

15ml fresh lemon juice


MONETARIO DE MEXICO

By Mike Enright – The Ivy Lounge, Sydney

‘Herradura reposado gives this cocktail a rich caramel taste that is rounded off with apricot brandy. To make the coriander syrup I blend the fresh herb with cold sugar syrup until it becomes a more earthy colour while retaining a unique freshness.’

Glass: Coupette

Garnish: Coriander leaf

Method: Press fruit and juice, add all ingredients, shake and fine strain into a glass.

45ml Herradura reposado

15ml apricot brandy

10ml coriander syrup

4 pineapple chunks

15ml lemon juice


MAJULAH MAGARITA

By Treys Ladrido – Café Iguana, Singapore

‘Named after Singapore’s national anthem, Majulah Singapura, this variation on the Margarita uses regional ingredients commonly found on the local food scene. Kaya is a jam made from eggs, coconut milk, sugar and pandan leaves (known as the ‘vanilla of the east’). Calamansi are small limes but taste more like a sour orange. Gula Melaka is a coconut palm sugar. The sweet agave and spiced custard flavours of the Ocho reposado are complemented without being overpowered by the coconut vanilla Kaya and orange touched citrus.’

Glass: Rocks

Garnish: Pandan leaves

Method: Shake and strain into a glass over fresh ice.

45ml Ocho reposado – Rancho El Carrizal 2008

30ml Kaya cordial

15ml fresh citrus juice (mix of lime, green lemon, Calamansi)

2 pandan leaves bundled


THE SENORITA

By Phil Ward – Mayahuel, New York

‘I tried to bridge the gap between the Margarita and the Agave Gimlet (which is a fine drink but just not a Margarita) and create something similar yet a little odd by leaving out the Cointreau and adding a dash of bitter.’

Glass: Coupe

Garnish: None

Method: Shake and strain into glass

60ml Pueblo Viejo reposado

15ml Madhava amber agave nectar

15ml Compass Box Orangerie

20ml fresh lime juice

Dash of Bittermen’s grapefruit bitters


BAYETE MARGARITA

Created by Kurt Schlechter for the Café Della Salute, Johannesburg

‘The name Bayete Margarita means ‘King’s Margarita’ in the Xhosa language. I chose Olmeca Altos reposado because its rustic tequila flavour works well with the spiciness of our naartjie triple sec.’

Glass: Coupe

Garnish: Naartjie segment

Method: Shake and strain into glass.

50ml Olmeca Altos reposado

25ml fresh lime juice

25ml orange juice

Dash orange bitters

25ml Butlers Van der Hum (a citrus liqueur made from a local tangerine called a naartjie)


RED PEPPER DAISY

By John Lermayer – The Florida Room, Miami

‘Almost all peppers play well with agave-based spirits. The red bell pepper is more flavourful and offers more sweetness that heat, thus retaining the freshness you expect from a Margarita, while adding zest and spice.’

Glass: Rocks

Garnish: Red pepper wheel

Method: Muddle pepper and shake with remaining ingredients, then double strain over fresh ice into a glass.

45ml Siete Leguas reposado

20ml fresh lime juice

20ml agave nectar

3 pieces of red pepper (capsicum)


BRUCE BANNER’S MARGARITA

By Jason Scott – Bramble, Edinburgh 

‘Using the Agave Sec in the Margarita creates a drier and snappier drink. The avocado doesn’t offer a dramatic flavour but more of a lush, soft mouth feel, and of course the crazy, eye catching colour’.

Glass: Champagne saucer

Method: Muddle avocado till smooth, then shake rapidly with remaining ingredients. Double strain into glass.

50ml Tapatio reposado

20ml freshly squeezed lime juice

25ml Agave Sec liqueur

¼ ripe avocado


The molecular Margarita

By now most of us have been privy to some form of molecular mixology. Over the last few years some amazing discoveries and wonderful drinks have been created with the aid of science, a few strange machines and some even wilder imaginations.

Tony Conigliaro of London’s 69 Colebrooke Row and New York’s Eben Freeman have been two pioneers in this field and have both put their own unique twist in the Margarita.

Conigliaro’s Kaffir Lime Margarita served with what he calls ‘sea salt snow’ is served in hollowed out fresh kaffir limes. First he cooks Don Julio tequila in a sous vide bag at 52ºC with kaffir lime leaves making an intense infusion which is shaken with the other usual ingredients. Freeman has made a Margarita ravioli using a process of reverse spherification which is eaten from a spoon with a salt air foam. 

At El Bulli – the most famous molecular-focused restaurant on the planet – revered chef Ferran Adria has for several years now made the cocktails a serious part of the El Bulli experience. Every season he has several welcome cocktails that each guest receives on arrival. Last year I was completely blown away by his Margarita (pictured above) which was essentially a small agave leaf that had been soaked in tequila and Cointreau with tiny flecks of lime zest and sea salt adorning the outside. It was beautifully presented in a bed of crushed ice and the whole piece was eaten whole.


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March/April 2010

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