Debate persists about the origins of the beloved margarita
Let’s set the record straight. No one is wastin’ away in Margaritaville because it’s his own damn fault.
The pathway it took for a couple of ounces of tequila and a shaker of salt — often lost — to become one of the most popular cocktails in the United States is a full-frontal group effort that includes folklore, a lot of bartenders speaking Spanish, illegal booze, maybe a famous stage star or two, a whole assembly of women named Margaret and one convenience store’s Slurpee machine.
As is often the case with anything this muddled, confused, exaggerated and disputed, Texas is in the middle of it.
First of all, what is a margarita? The generic description simply says it’s a cocktail made with tequila, a liqueur or other sweetener and lime juice. That description is, of course, comparable to a fuse on a box of dynamite. Everything might start there, but it quickly gets explosive. There are more opinions, recipes and versions of the mighty margarita than there are memory lapses the morning after.
Natalia Castravet is the manager at Lucky Lounge, 8305 Stewart Road in Galveston, the place many claim is the go-to destination for great margaritas. In fact, Lucky Lounge was the first-place winner at the Texas Tequila & Margarita Festival a few years back.
“The most essential things that make perfect margaritas are the quality of the ingredients like good tequila and fresh lime juice and the right ratio,” Castravet said. “If you put too much of anything in the margarita, that won’t make a perfect margarita. Also, throw some passion in there when you make it.”
Like everything about margaritas, throwing in passion is a practice without restrictions. Consider that Lucky Lounge’s award-winning recipe calls for blueberry and lemon basil syrup.
“Having a very competitive and very creative staff at Lucky Lounge, we thought for months before the contest about a perfect margarita that we would enjoy and others would, too,” Castravet said. “Our long-time bartender Roxy came up with an innovative concept of a Blueberry Lemon Basil Margarita. Being inspired by that combination, all of us contributed our ideas to make it perfect. We wanted a sweet and sour taste, but with a fresh kick. We believe we achieved just that.”
One thing cocktail researchers seem to agree on is that this cocktail can trace its roots back more than a century and it was indeed identified by what is often a woman’s name.
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
There’s a cocktail called a daisy that first started appearing in the late 19th century and has all the DNA that made up the early margaritas decades later. The most common cocktail in this family was the brandy daisy, made with two and a half ounces of brandy, two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice and a tablespoon of grenadine. Sound familiar?
The drink was immensely popular, and by the 1930s and ‘40s, the brandy daisy had begat the gin daisy, the Irish daisy, the rum daisy and the Scotch daisy, all with the same recipe other than the change in liquor. And yes, during Prohibition, when tequila found a ready market in alcohol-starved areas near Mexico, a daisy bloomed with that as well. In the 1930 “My New Cocktail Book” by G.F. Steele, a daisy recipe using tequila was included, and in 1936, a drink specifically named tequila daisy was mentioned in the Syracuse Herald, a New York newspaper.
Somewhere around that time, the margarita was born, although the first known publication of a margarita recipe wasn’t until December 1953.
The birth certificate leaves the parentage questionable.
“There are some truly amazing stories, dating since 1900 about the origin, but our Lucky Lounge favorite story is, of course, about the bartender Santos Cruz who worked at the legendary Balinese Room in Galveston,” Castravet said. “He created the drink and named it after Peggy Lee.”
The date was 1948. Because the famous singer’s actual name was Margaret, Cruz named the drink after her using the Spanish spelling of Margaret.
Another story goes south with the origin, crediting a Mexican restaurant owner named Carlos (Danny) Herrera. Visiting his restaurant in 1938, the stunningly beautiful Ziegfeld showgirl, Marjorie King, informed him that she was allergic to all forms of alcohol except tequila. She refused to drink it straight, so Herrera concocted a drink with tequila, lime juice and salt. Since Marjorie is a derivative of the name Margaret, he named the drink after her, using the Spanish spelling.
And then there is the tale of a Dallas socialite named Margaret Sames, who was said to have invented the drink during a house party in Acapulco in 1948 — the same year Cruz created a drink for Peggy Lee. Being named Margaret, Sames used the Spanish version of her name for her drink. Several years before, another story goes, actress Rita Hayworth was performing in Tijuana, when a smitten bartender invented the drink for her. The actress’ real name was Margarita Cansino.
There are more stories, including one that lacks the panache of all the others. The Spanish word for daisy is margarita.
One thing is certain about all this confusion of origin, and it’s exactly what some people think. There’s a woman to blame.
If the origin of this cocktail doesn’t cause enough argument, there’s the additional firebomb question of “Frozen or on the rocks?”
Castravet believes you’re either drinking tequila or just a drink, she said.
“If you truly want a great margarita, the way to go is on the rocks,” Castravet said. “It would be a shame to get it frozen if you want to taste the top-shelf tequila.”
But shunning frozen also is shunning something truly Texas.
Mariano Martinez, the owner and operator of Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine in Dallas, was doing a booming business selling a signature frozen margarita in the 1970s. The problem was, the drink was so popular, the bar was selling hundreds of them a night using one small blender. The drinks were inconsistent, the blender was constantly overheating and the bartenders were standing in line waiting to get the drinks made.
One late night after work, Martinez stopped by a 7-Eleven convenience store near his restaurant and ordered a Slurpee, the slushy flavored drinks iconic to the store. Staring at the Slurpee machine while waiting for his order, Martinez saw the entire future of the margarita swirling in front of him. Notably, Martinez’s first frozen margarita machine now sits in the Smithsonian. It’s considered one of the “Top Ten Inventions from the National Museum of American History’s Collection.”
The museum does not have a shaker of salt. It’s lost.
BLUEBERRY LEMON BASIL MARGARITA
From Lucky Lounge in Galveston, Winner of the 2015 Texas Tequila & Margarita Festival
3 ounces Reposado Tequila
2 ounces fresh squeezed lime juice
1 ounce blueberry, lemon basil syrup (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon orange liqueur
Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Strain into a margarita glass.
BLUEBERRY, LEMON BASIL SYRUP
Yields: 2.5-3 cups
2 cups water
1 pint fresh blueberries
3⁄4 cup brown sugar
1 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
Zest of one lemon
Bring water and fresh blueberries to a boil. Add sugar and keep over medium heat, pressing down on the blueberries. Add the fresh basil leaves and the zest of 1 whole lemon. Simmer until slightly thickened — about 15 minutes.
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve or cheese cloth, pressing the ingredients to get all the liquid out. Discard solids. After syrup is cool, pour into a sealable container and store in the refrigerator until chilled. Will keep 2-4 weeks.