The Basics History & Trends

The History and Secrets of the Margarita

Margarita Illustration / Justin Shiels 

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The Margarita isn’t the only tequila cocktail in the world—far from it. But it’s inarguably the most agreed-upon icon of its category. Try to come to a one-cocktail consensus on whiskey, rum, vodka or gin. Guaranteed you’ll be verbally duking it out in less than 60 seconds. But tequila? No Marist Poll needed. It’s the Margarita, hands down.

Daisy Roots

Another simple fact, easily discerned via a quick clickety-clack on Google Translator: In the English language, “margarita” appears to work its way into a handy translation of “daisy flower.” Which points one squarely to the Daisy cocktail. Dating back to the 1920s, Daisies employ a spirit, citrus, orange liqueur and soda water combo, thus making it a category in which tequila fits into quite nicely.

“The Margarita is just a twist on the Daisy, subbing in tequila as the main spirit,” says Philip Dobard, the vice president of the National Food & Beverage Foundation. “A lot of things were happening during Prohibition, and Americans were going to Mexico and trying tequila for the first time. Before that, it was unknown here.”

If you peruse the pages of any drinks manual pre-1940s, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many mentions of tequila. When you do, it’s in exoticized terms, such as in Charles “Ramblin’ Man” Baker’s 1939 tome, “A Gentleman’s Companion,” in which the author proposes it for drinks like the violently named Mexican “Firing Squad” Special. “This drink is based on tequila,” writes Baker, “[a] top-flight distillation of the maguey plant.” The cocktail employs the spirit along with lime, grenadine, gomme syrup and bitters.

But the spirit-sour-sweet part of his combo wasn’t really so far afield, and other seekers of fine drink had gotten closer still.

“In the 1937 ‘Café Royal Cocktail Book,’ a cocktail called a Picador is listed,” says Emily Arseneau, a bartender and brand manager for Rémy Cointreau’s Collectif 1806. “The ingredients include Cointreau liqueur, tequila and fresh lemon or lime—no salt mentioned. To me, the Margarita is such a perfect exercise in balance—the sweet, the sour, the salty, the proof. It’s harmony!”

“Things like the Sidecar and Kamikaze all fall into the Daisy format, which is two parts booze, one part Cointreau [or generally orange liqueur] and three-quarters lemon or lime juice,” says a bartender and the co-owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda, Ivy Mix. “You can mess around in that format, but it will still probably taste pretty good.”

Margarita ingredients illustration / Justin Shiels

Its True Origins Are Unknown

Once you get past these quantifiable facts, short of finding a carbon-datable piece of paper with the recipe handwritten upon it along with a bartender’s signature, there’s no way to say who invented the Margarita.

It’s no surprise there are a multitude of stories, involving actors, socialites and myriad bars and restaurants with heartfelt breast-beating stories of authenticity—some taking place in Mexico, some here in the U.S.

“It’s not really a Mexican cocktail; it’s more of an Americanized, Tex-Mex cocktail,” says Mix. “You don’t drink Margaritas in Mexico; you drink Palomas.”

“I think it’s fascinating that no one can pinpoint the origin of the Margarita,” says Mia Mastroianni, of West Hollywood, Calif.’s SoHo House, who’s a fixer of many woeful examples of poorly made ’Ritas as an on-scene expert bartender for Paramount Network’s “Bar Rescue.” “Such a simple cocktail could have happened in nine different places throughout the country where people said, ‘Oh, I can try it this way without the soda water,’ and it evolved into tequila, orange liqueur and fresh lime. That’s your classic Margarita.”

This theorizing makes the most sense. When you consider the simplicity of the drink, the increasing availability of its ingredients, and the urge to use another drink’s structure as an influencing format, it’s far more likely that the Margarita was “invented” in multiple places by multiple people.

Robert Simonson, a drinks writer and the author of “3-Ingredient Cocktails,” which devotes several pages to the enduring cocktail, found the more he pressed, the less plausible the so-called historical accounts became.

“When I was doing research for my book, I started digging into the various origin stories surrounding its creation,” he says. “Most of these tales are very specific and, thus, highly improbable. As any cocktail historian knows, the more detailed an origin story is—time, place, inventor, circumstances all laid out—the closer you’re getting to nonsense-town.”

Which is also, in a sense, where the finer points of the Margarita by and large took a siesta for a couple of decades. It got big, brazen and gauche, spilling forth from gigantic hat-size, multitiered eponymously named glasses filled to the brim with prefab sweet-and-sour mix and other ingredients of questionable quality.

“The Margarita didn’t really play a role in my early drinking life,” says Simonson. “It was a big, sloppy, sugary drink that came in a ridiculously large glass that you ordered at Chili’s and the like.”

Although, these days, even the Chili’s outpost in the Fort Lauderdale airport—not where one expects shining examples of elevated cocktailing—offers a house Margarita boastfully made with fresh lime and decent tequila. “It wasn’t until the ’00s, when the cocktail revival kicked in, when I realized it could be a carefully wrought cocktail, just like any other, if it were made with quality tequila and curaçao, and fresh lime juice,” says Simonson.

Simple Is Best

Which isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of fine establishments keeping things simple and classic. Little spots like Pepe’s in Key West, Fla., where a gigantic hand-juicer sits at all times on the outdoor bar for squeezing local lime after lime for its fresh salt-rimmed Margaritas.

Or the famed Tommy’s in San Francisco, which, in a desire to highlight its wonderfully curated premium tequila selections, made the controversial move of eschewing the orange liqueur for a strict diet of tequila, lime and agave nectar. It was so popular that the Tommy’s Margarita has taken on a life of its own and is, perhaps, the one Margarita with an unequivocal inventor, Tommy’s owner Julio Bermejo.

“We’ve found that the Margarita recipe that best suits us is the Tommy’s Margarita,” says head bartender Kitty Bernardo of Princeton, N.J., eatery and bar Two Sevens. “The mellow sweetness of agave nectar plus the fact that its sugars come from the same plant as the tequila give the drink a brighter, more refreshing taste.”

But for purists, it has to have the orange liqueur—be it brandy-based curaçao, Cointreau or triple sec. “There are so many different types of orange liqueur out there, and they have different appeal for different drinks,” says Mix. “I like a little more subtlety in my Margarita.”

Our suggestion: Use a a little of both orange liqueur and agave syrup. Together, they make a drink that’s bright, subtle and extremely drinkable. And who could argue with that?