The margarita, traditionally made with tequila, lime juice and triple sec, though many variations exist, has been a staple on cocktail menus for decades. But how did it end up there?
There are plenty of tales touted by tequila enthusiasts about how the margarita came to be.
One involves American socialites and hotel barons. In another, a Mexican bartender named his new drink in honor of one of its first sippers, Margarita, who was the daughter of a German ambassador. Yet another is that the recipe started as a wedding present.
But drink historians say the margarita most likely came to us slowly, as people and liquor spread around the world, mixing and mingling over time.
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“Success has many parents,” Jared Brown, drink historian and master distiller with Sipsmith told USA TODAY. “This was a successful drink, but emerged from innocuous origins, so it was easy for storytellers to attribute it to all sorts of people.”
Margaritas are drinks mixed with tall tales
Most of the origin stories that have been passed around take place in Mexico between the 1930s and 1940s, according to Marie Sarita Gaytán, author of “¡Tequila!: Distilling the Spirit of Mexico”. Typically, the plot involves a man, usually a bartender, who makes a new drink for a woman.
Sometimes, the woman is American; sometimes, she is Mexican, Gaytán added.
Jaime Salas, tequila expert and national ambassador for Milagro Tequila, has heard several stories about how the drink got its name.
One of the “more popular rumors,” he explains, is Margarita Sames, an American socialite, who claims to have invented it and named the cocktail after herself. Her friend, Tommy Hilton, then put the drink on his hotel bar menus.
Another rumor dates to 1941, when bartender Don Carlos Orozco from Ensenada, Mexico, offered one of his drink creations to the daughter of a German ambassador, Margarita Henkel. Salas said that that tale claims the bartender named the drink in her honor.
Finally, some give credit to Danny Negrete, who made the drink as a wedding gift for his sister-in-law named Margarita. She wasn’t the only woman bearing that name in his world: Margarita Cansino, better known as Rita Hayworth, performed at the Caliente Race Track, where Negrete worked.
“They’re all cute and entertaining and involve celebrities and cowboy bartenders and Mexican maidens,” said Brown. “Who wants to hear an evolution story when there could be one about a gorgeous brunette with a rose clenched in her teeth?”
The margarita evolved from an unexpected origin
The margarita had roots much earlier than the flashy origin stories above. And it didn’t begin with tequila, Brown said.
It’s a descendant of the daiquiri, a product of the Royal Navy’s rum rations. Before that, the idea of mixed drinks became popularized thanks to sailors learning about punch in India, he said.
To track the drink’s lineage, Brown and Anistatia Miller went through recipes from various cultures searching for any instance of the margarita’s ingredients. They did so while writing their book, “Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink”.
“The combination of alcohol, citrus, sugar and dilution was easy to follow,” Brown said. “(It began) with East India Company sailors returning to England from India in the late 1500s.”
The sailors carried back shiploads of exotic spices, along with borrowed knowledge of food and drink.
“One drink became all the rage,” Brown said. “Taking its name from the Hindi word for ‘five’ because of its classic five-ingredient recipe (alcohol, dilution, sweetener, citrus and tea or bitters), punch quickly wove itself into the fabric of British culture.”
Around two centuries later, in 1756, the concoction was still being used by British soldiers, who were mixing a daily ration of rum with water with sugar and limes to make a palatable drink.
Eventually, as people traveled the world, the drink did, too.
When the Royal Navy briefly invaded Cuba in the 1760s, a citrus-laden cocktail came, too.
“Prior to this, there was no record within Cuban culture of people combining rum, citrus, sugar and water,” Brown said. “After this, there is an unbroken tradition with the emergence of canchanchara, up to the present-day daiquiri.”
Then, in 1769, after Cuba was returned to the Spanish, a Spanish dictionary of “foreign terms” had an entry for the word “ponche.” The word was defined as “aguardiente, azucar, limon y agua” (translated to spirit, sugar, lemon and water), and described as “una bebida Inglesa” or an English drink), Brown explained.
The margarita solidifies its popularity in the 20th century
By the early 20th century, the margarita as we know it today had arrived.
Brown points to the Café Royal Cocktail book, where the “first recipe we might recognize as a margarita” appeared in the late 1930s, though it was called “The Picador.” The book, which was first published in 1937 by the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild, shows the variety of mixed drinks being consumed in London at the time.
Gaytán chronicles the drink with pop-culture milestones. In 1953, “Esquire” named it “Drink of the Month.” Three years later, “Vogue” featured the drink in its “People are Talking About” column. In the 1960s, Jose Cuervo began running a series of ads promoting its tequila as the “favorite” among margarita cocktail connoisseurs.
Today, the margarita is among the most popular cocktails around the world. This year, it ranked No. 7 on Drinks International’s list of the world’s 50 best-selling cocktails.
How did margaritas become associated with Cinco de Mayo?
When Americans think of Cinco de Mayo, the day reserved each year to celebrate Mexico’svictory over France during the at the Battle of Puebla, we often think of a celebration that includes a margarita. But why is that?
Gaytán said it could have something to do with the invention of the frozen margarita machine. Created by Mexican-American restaurateur Mariano Martinez in the early ’70s, the machine made margaritas easy to serve in restaurants.
“The slushy drinks were modern, tasty, and efficient — customers and bartenders both loved them,” she said.
Those same restaurants had Cinco de Mayo celebrations, where they naturally served margaritas.
Then, in the 1980s, companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller created “Hispanic” marketing departments.
“One of the first things they did was sponsor community events, like Cinco de Mayo parades,” Gaytán said, adding tequila companies soon followed suit.
But for the most part, Salas said he thinks it can be a good thing to have the link: “What I love about Cinco de Mayo is that people don’t only engage with the spirit (tequila) but they bring everything that comes with it.”
He thinks questions around the margarita have led to people wanting to know more about Mexico and Mexican culture.
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