History of the Margarita
History of the Margarita

History of the Margarita cocktail image 1

History of the Margarita cocktail

Words by Simon Difford

Part of the 'sour' cocktail family, the Margarita traditionally consists of three ingredients; tequila, triple sec orange liqueur and lime juice, often served in a glass with salt on the rim. Margaritas are mostly shaken and served either straight-up in the eponymous margarita glass (coupette) or over ice in an old-fashioned glass. They may also be blended with ice and served "frozen".

1936 - Tequila Daisy

Margarita is the Spanish word for 'daisy'. (Incidentally, daisy is thought to be a corruption of 'day's eye' due to the flower head of the daisy closing at night and opening in the morning.) And it's probable that the Margarita cocktail is simply a tequila-based Daisy - a family of cocktails made with citrus juice, sweetened with syrup or a liqueur, and fortified with a base spirit that dates back to Victorian times.

The Daisy was a category of cocktail popular in the early 20th century with the 19th July 1939 edition of the Albuquerque Journal describing the Daisy as being "ubiquitous", while the first specific mention of a Tequila Daisy appeared in the Moville Mail on 23rd July 1936 (pg. 4, cols. 1-3) in a piece titled "Graham's Sightseeing". James Graham was the newspaper's editor and owner and in the piece, he recounts his visit to Tijuana and Augua [sic] Caliente, Mexico.

When we parked, the driver told us of places of interest that are now not so interesting as in the days of Prohibition in the States. Then there were 150 bars open, now there are nine. One of these is run by an Irishman named Madden. The driver had told us of his skill in mixing drinks. One of his inventions has given his saloon the name of "The Home of the Famous Tequila Daisy." As a newspaper man seeking information, I entered the joint and told Mr. Madden my curiosity was aroused regarding The Daisy. He was not as talkative as his prototype, Mr. Dooley, but I imagine he looks like that gentleman, the creature of the imagination of the late Peter Finlay Dunne. After a while he told me The Daisy was not an invention, as no skill was employed in its creation, it was a mistake. "In mixing a drink I grabbed the wrong bottle and the customer was so delighted that he called for another and spread the good news far and wide," said Mr. Madden.

James Graham, 23/July/1936 in Moville Mail

Shortly after, in the 19th August 1936 edition of the Syracuse Herald (pg. 24, col. 3), an advertisement for Leo Lighter and His All-Girl Band mentions "Syracuse's newest and refreshing drink Tequila Daisy". If Leo Lighter and His All-Girl Band and Tequila Daisies weren't enough, the ad also promises "Eddie Vanzill" the "Dancing Waiter" as an "Added Attraction".

1937 - Picador

The 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book by William James "Billy" Tarling includes the British ancestor of the Margarita called a Picador. This predates the first known mention of the Margarita by 16 years with the recipe in proportions identical to that recognised today as a Margarita. So, the Margarita is obviously a British invention. Hoorah!

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1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book

1939 - Tequila Sour

The same ingredients in the Picador appear in the first-known recipe for a Tequila Sour which appears in the Sours section of New York bartender Charlie Connolly's 1939 The World Famous Cotton Club: 1939 Book of Mixed Drinks.

1½ ounces Tequila
½ ounce Cointreau
Juice of ½ Lime
Shake all ingredients with cracked ice. Strain into a cocktail glass, rimmed with rind of lime and coated with salt. Garnish with wedge of lime

Charlie Conolly, 1939

Charlie Connolly's Tequila Sour is distinguished from the Picador, and indeed other sours, by its being served in a salt-rimmed glass with a wedge of lime. Importantly, Conolly's sour is also a true margarita as it is a tequila sour sweetened with orange liqueur. (In contrast, a Tommy's Margarita sweetened with agave syrup is simply a tequila sour.)

1953 - Margarita

The first known mention of this tequila daisy/tequila sour under the name Margarita appears in the 17th September 1953 edition of a Santa Rosa, California newspaper, The Press Democrat, in a piece titled "Memo from Mike" by Michael Demarest. Just back from his three-week vacation "on and off the beach at Balboa, where we crewed a 44-foot ketch owned by some friends", Mike recounts a meal in Ensenada washed down with Margaritas.

Much as we'd have liked to stay around for the big race, we finally girded up our moneybelt and drove to Ensenada, where the quail, lobster and Santo Tomas white wine are as elegant as ever and only slightly more expensive. Mexican inflation hasn't affected the price of the margaritas, however. Margaritas are concocted of tequila, Cointreau and lemon juice and served in a glass whose rim has been dipped in salt–to guard the consumer against heat prostration, no doubt. They cost 50 cents a throw, Meaning you start throwing things on the 3rd drink.

Michael Demarest, 17/Sep/1953

The recipe for the Margarita follows later that year in the December 1953 issue of Esquire magazine along with a suitably flowery description, "She's from Mexico, Señores, and she is lovely to look at, exciting and provocative." The recipe given is one-ounce tequila, a dash of triple sec and the juice of half a lime or lemon.

The trail of Margarita reporting continues the following year in Gene Sherman's Los Angeles Times "Cityside" column.

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Then in his "Valley Ramblings" column in the 13th January 1955 edition of The Van Nuys News (Van Nuys, California), Dave W. Himlin informs "Lovers of that celebrated Mexican beverage, tequila," that they have "Johnny Dresser, head barman at McHenry's Tail o' the Cock Restaurants, to thank" for creating the "Marguerita" "way back in 1937."

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The Van Nuys News, 13/Jan/1955

Who created/named the Margarita?

Johnny Durlesser is one of the many people who either claim to have invented or named the Margarita cocktail. The following are the most notable, in roughly chronological order, rather than by probability:

1. Sara Morales, an expert in Mexican folklore, claimed the Margarita was created in 1930 by Doña Bertha, owner of Bertha's Bar in Taxco, Mexico.

2. David Daniel "Danny" Negrete is said to have created the drink in 1936 when he was the manager of Hotel Garci Crespo in Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico. His girlfriend, Margarita, apparently liked salt in her drinks and the story goes that he created the drink for her as a present. In 1944 Danny moved to Tijuana, Mexico, and became a bartender at the Agua Caliente Racetrack, a place which claims to be the birthplace of the Margarita in the early 1930s.

3. In 1937, Vernon O. Underwood, a salesman for Young's Market Company (who worked his way up to become its President in 1963), the Los Angeles distributor for José Cuervo tequila, is said to have asked Johnny Durlesser, head bartender of The Tail O' The Cock restaurant in Los Angeles, to create something using Young's newly acquired spirit.

It's a good story, supported by the above piece in January 1955 Van Nuys News, but The Tail O' The Cock didn't open until 1939 and rather than ask Durlesser to create the drink, Underwood actually visited the restaurant to see why they were ordering five cases of tequila at a time and discovered this was due to Durlesser's cocktail.

So the story is at least two years adrift, but Durlesser was a well-respected bartender and to quote David Wondrich, "while his story might not be completely accurate, it is unlikely to have been completely fabricated either."

Some also claim Underwood named the new cocktail after his wife Margaret (Margarita) but his wife was actually named Adrienne. Underwood is quoted as saying, "no name had been given to it. We named it. They were serving a tequila drink at The Tail O' The Cock, but really it was more or less nameless. We and the owner of the res­taurant named it the Margarita."

4. Francisco "Pancho" Morales says he created the Margarita in the summer of 1942 whilst working in a bar called Tommy's Place on Juarez Avenue in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after "A lady came in and said, 'Let me have a Magnolia.'" on the 4th July 1942. Unable to remember the recipe for a Magnolia cocktail but remembering it contained Cointreau, lime, and a spirit base, he mixed these ingredients with tequila.

I gave it to her and she says, 'Oh, this is not a Magnolia, but it is very good.' And, I said, 'Oh, oh, I thought you said Margarita.' You see, daisy, in Spanish, is margarita. The reason I called it the Margarita is because I was thinking of the flower margarita, like the magnolia. She liked it. That's how it originated.

Francisco Morales, 1974 in Texas Monthly

5. Carlos Daniel "Danny" Herrera is also said to have created the cocktail either in 1947 or 1948 at his Rancho La Gloria bar in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, for an actress called Marjorie King who drank no spirit but tequila. He added Cointreau and lime, and the unique salt rim that caught people's attention at the bar, then named his creation Margarita, the nearest Spanish name to Marjorie.

6. Santos Cruz is said to have created the Margarita while working at the Studio Lounge in Galveston, Texas, USA, for the famous jazz singer Peggy Lee after she requested "a tequila drink without a lot of mess in it." Her husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, is said to have christened the drink "Margarita" due to Peggy being short for Margaret and the tequila steering him to use the Spanish version of the name.

7. The socialite Margaret Sames held a Christmas party in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1948, where she is said to have created the first Margarita.

It's worth mentioning that Margarita is a girl's name that reached its peak of popularity in America during the 1930s and 40s so there were plenty of Margaritas around in the 1950s when it would appear the Margarita cocktail was christened.

Whatever the truth behind the story of Johnny Durlesser creating the Margarita, under Vernon Underwood's guidance, in early 1955, Young's Market Company moved from being a local to the national U.S. distributor for José Cuervo and supported this with a national advertising campaign for tequila-based drinks, most notably the Margarita. Vernon's insight into the growing popularity of Cuervo and the Margarita cocktail helped make Young's Market one of America's biggest liquor distributors, and in turn, Young's Market advertising the Margaitra was influential on the cocktail's success.

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Lastly, (as David Wondrich points out) Shelton Henry, owner of The Tail O' The Cock, was a friend of Margaret Sames (see No.7 above) and, with this in mind, Sames could have been Durlesser's "Let me have a Magnolia" lady.

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