Cinco de Mayo is upon us—and you know what that means. Margarita time! So what exactly is in a margarita? A whole lot more than tequila and some sweet-and-sour, if you ask me.
Back when I was working in the only all-female bureau of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in the early 2000s, we received word that all bureau holiday parties were canceled. If you didn’t work at the newspaper’s headquarters downtown, you weren’t getting a party—unless you wanted to drive at least a half hour to join the crew there for sad crudités and even sorrier appetizers.
No thanks. We decided to take matters into our own hands and throw our own party. Our editorial assistant brought her seven-layer bars and deviled eggs, our chief trekked in some sort of delicious yet healthy dish, and our ad sales rep and circulation assistant both added more desserts to the festivities.
I don’t know of another alcoholic beverage that symbolizes female friendship, sisterhood, or independence the way the margarita does.
In a decision that proved prescient as I later became a writer of all things booze, I ignored newsroom alcohol protocols and trekked in my blender, frozen strawberries, fresh limes, tequila, sugar, and Grand Marnier. We transformed the bureau into Margaritaville for an afternoon. (A note to my former editors: We didn’t get wasted, and we did make our deadlines.)
Why margaritas? First, let me say women now feel—and should feel—empowered to drink whatever the heck they want, whether it’s whiskey or watermelon Cosmos, but I don’t know of another alcoholic beverage that symbolizes female friendship, sisterhood, or independence the way the margarita does. The margarita, in fact, reigns supreme as our country’s most popular cocktail.
“It’s a simple, three-ingredient, brilliantly balanced cocktail,” says Camille Austin, national brand ambassador for Montelobos mezcal. My unofficial study of our country’s most popular cocktail reveals that 9.5 out of 10 women have a happy margarita memory. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a woman who doesn’t enjoy a margarita every now and then. My friends who don’t drink at all still sip spirit-free versions. Even my mom, who prefers red wine to every other alcoholic beverage on the planet, will order a margarita if the occasion calls for it.
The Making of Margarita: Which Story Will You Swallow?
And like any good, classic cocktail, the margarita boasts a legendary history. Talk to any bartender, and she’ll tell you a different story of how the drink came to be. I love them all. Austin shares the story of how Texas socialite Margaret—aka Margarita—Sames first mixed one up at a party she was hosting in Acapulco back in 1948. Supposedly, one Tommy Hilton was present and was so enchanted by her cocktail that he added it to the cocktail menus of his hotel chain. “I like to imagine her whipping up these bad boys during a party at her house in sunny Acapulco,” Austin says, “while everyone was mingling and listening to the ocean in the background.”
Texas socialite Margaret—aka Margarita—Sames supposedly first mixed one up at a party she was hosting in Acapulco back in 1948.
Another tale suggests the drink was invented in 1938 by a Tijuana restaurateur named Carlos “Danny” Herrera for one of his customers, Marjorie King. A Ziegfeld showgirl who was supposedly allergic to all types of alcohol except tequila, King didn’t like to drink the spirit neat. So Herrera whipped up a cocktail with salt and lime, and she loved it.
Yet another version posits that the cocktail was created in 1941 by bartender Don Carlos Orozco in Ensenada (Baja California) for Margarita Henkel, the daughter of the German ambassador. He mixed a concoction of tequila, orange liqueur, and lime, shook it together, served it in a salt-rimmed glass, and then named the drink in her honor. Want to hear one or two more? How about that bartender Santo Cruz of Galveston, Texas, devised it for famed singer Peggy Lee? Or that it was concocted in Tijuana and named for actress Rita Hayworth?
Winning the (Cocktail) Popularity Contest
Though no one knows exactly when the first Margarita was shaken, we do know that Jose Cuervo promoted its tequila in an advertisement in the 1940s with the tagline, “The Margarita: It’s More Than Just A Girl’s Name.” We also are certain that Americans began drinking them quite regularly in the 1950s and 1960s. And I can assure you that those slushy, fruity versions became a thing almost 50 years ago, thanks to Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez’s invention of the frozen margarita machine in 1971.
And here is a little more lore for drink geeks. “The prevailing theory is that the marriage of tequila, citrus, and sweetener was originated in a drink called the ‘Tequila Daisy,’” says Stephanie Teslar, manager of trade education and mixology for Patron Tequila. The word “margarita” is Spanish for “daisy.” “Daisies were a popular cocktail at the time the Margarita started to become prominent,” Teslar adds.
‘Maybe the beauty of this iconic cocktail is that we will never really know the real history.’
Is that where the name comes from, or did a woman named Margarita invent or inspire the drink? “Maybe the beauty of this iconic cocktail is that we will never really know,” Austin says. My theory is that several people invented it, all around the same time, and no one person can take or deserves all the credit. It was a drink whose time had come, and it remains a drink with immense staying power. It’s a drink many of us crave for its simple satisfaction. “As long as tequila and citrus exist, the Margarita will thrive,” Teslar says. “Their partnership is inevitable.”
My friend Kelly Wisecarver, who is president of a Chicago public relations firm that specializes in spirits, drinks mostly really good spirits or wine, but even she has a regular ‘rita story to share. “I was fortunate enough to travel through Italy for almost a month with a good friend,” Kelly says. “By the time we hit Venice, we were so tired of drinking red wine and eating pasta.” So the two of them went to the luxurious Gritti Palace overlooking the Grand Canal and ordered hamburgers and margaritas. “I swear, they were the best margaritas I ever had,” she says. “The lunch was outrageously expensive, but we didn’t care. We needed a taste of home, and, of course, that meant margaritas.”
For your own celebration, here are three riffs on the classic margarita, along with suggestions to create your own new margarita recipe:
Jeanette’s Frozen Fruit Rita
Here’s a perfected version of the drink I served at that memorable holiday party.
- 1 ½ oz. good tequila (blanco or anejo, or equal parts of both)
- ¾ oz. orange liqueur
- ¾ oz. agave syrup or simple syrup (see recipe below)
- ¾ oz. fresh lime juice
- 1 cup frozen fruit
- ½ cup ice cubes
- Dash citrus bitters (lime bitters are especially delicious)
- Garnish: lime wheel or wedge, salt and sugar for the rim
- Glass: margarita, coup (or Champagne saucer), or poco (a bud-shaped wine glass)
Pour liquors into blender; add remaining ingredients. Blend until smooth. Rub lime wheel or wedge around the rim of the glass, dip onto a plate with an equal mix of sugar and salt, put garnish on the glass, pour in drink, and enjoy.
Simple syrup: Combine ½ cup hot water and ½ cup sugar, stirring until dissolved.
The Tommy Margarita
This is my favorite regular margarita recipe from Chicago mixologist Carlos E. Cuarta.
- 1 ½ oz. tequila (all blanco or an equal blend of blanco and anejo tequilas)
- ¾ oz. fresh lime juice
- ¼ oz. agave syrup
- ¼ oz. cane syrup*
- Garnish: ½ salted rim and lime wedge or wheel
- Glass: Old-fashioned
Shake together all ingredients with ice. Strain into a glass that has been half-dipped in lime juice then coated with salt and filled with ice. Only half of the rim should be salted, and the salt should only be on the outside of the glass, never on the inside. “If the salt is on the inside, it becomes too salty,” Cuarta says. Finish with a wedge or wheel of lime.
*Note: You can buy pure cane syrup at some local Walmart stores, Walmart online, and Amazon. Cuarto used Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup for this drink. You can also make your own cane syrup; here’s one recipe from theKitchn.
“Mezcal is the granddaddy of all agave spirits and is made through a very artisanal underground pit roasting process,” says Camille Austin, who created this drink. “This lends a beautiful smoky flavor that tequila does not have, heightening the senses and elevating this variation.”
- 1 oz. Montelobos Espadin Mezcal
- 1 oz. Ancho Reyes Verde
- 1 oz. fresh lime juice
- ½ oz. simple syrup
- Garnish: lime wheel with avocado leaf salt and lime wheel or lime wheel with other salt.
Combine all ingredients in a shaker filled with ice, and shake well. Serve over fresh ice in a rocks glass and sprinkle with avocado-leaf* or other salt over a lime wheel.
*Avocado leaf salt is a salt that is handmade in Oaxaca—it is dried avocado leaves, cilantro leaves, salt, and chiles. You can substitute a chile-laced salt like Halo del Santo (see our “Mix It Up” box to the right).
Jeanette Hurt is the award-winning writer and author of eight culinary and drink books, including the recent Drink Like a Woman and The Cheeses of California: A Culinary Travel Guide, which received the 2010 Mark Twain Award for Best Travel Book. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and son.
A version of this article was originally published in July 2018.