Margarita Cocktails - best recipes and history

Words by Simon Difford

Margarita Cocktails - best recipes and history image 1

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".

Origins and history

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 style of drink 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."

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".

The 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book by William J. Tarling includes a 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

The first (suitably flowery) printed mention of a Margarita cocktail is in the December 1953 issue of Esquire magazine: "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.

It's worth mentioning that Margarita is an American girl's name that reached its peak of popularity in the 1930s and 40s so there were plenty of Margaritas around in the 1950s when it would appear the Margarita cocktail was christened. Margarita is also the name of an island, Isla de Margarita (Margarita Island), a popular holiday destination in the Caribbean north of Venezuela, two-and-a-half hours from Miami.

There are many people who either claim to have invented or named the Margarita cocktail. The following are the most notable, in rough chronological order, rather than by probability:

1. Vernon Underwood was president of Young's Market Company, which in the 1930s had started distributing Cuervo tequila in America. He is said to have asked Johnny Durlesser, head bartender of the Tail O' The Cock in Los Angeles, to create something using his newly acquired spirit, then named the new drink after his wife Margaret (Margarita).

2. 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.

3. Daniel "Danny" Negrete is said to have created the drink in 1936 when he was the manager of Garci Crespo Hotel in 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.

4. Francisco "Pancho" Morales said he created the Margarita whilst working in a bar called Tommy's Place in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after being asked to make a 'Magnolia' on the 4th July 1942. Unable to remember the recipe he is said to have created the now famous drink. Who knows, the customer's name may even have been Margarita.

5. Carlos "Danny" Herrera is also said to have created the cocktail either in 1947 or 1948 at his Rancho La Gloria bar in Rosarito, 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. The socialite Margaret Sames held a Christmas party in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1948, where she is said to have created the first Margarita. She thought nothing of it until, when flying home to San Antonio from Acapulco airport, she saw a bar advertising 'Margarita's Drink', a cocktail with exactly the same ingredients as her own.

Preferred recipe

Classically a margarita consists of 2 parts tequila, 1 part triple sec liqueur and 1 part lime juice. This tends to produce a drink which is a tad on the sour side of balanced (depending on your limes and liqueur's sweetness). Hence, it's common to slightly dial up the sweetness with a spoon or two of sugar syrup, or better still, agave syrup (as per our Margarita recipe).

The 2:1:1 Margarita formula - with or without additional sugar/agave syrup (to taste) works well either served straight-up or on-the-rocks. However, if blending to serve 'frozen' then the drink benefits from dramatically upping the sweetness.

While triple sec liqueur is the classic Margarita sweetener, other liqueurs (orange or otherwise) are often used and thanks to drinks industry legend, Julio Bermejo, and his Tommy's Margarita, liqueurs are either totally or partly replaced as a sweetener by the use of agave syrup.

However, a Tommy's Margarita is not strictly a Margarita, it’s a mere Tequila Sour while a true Margarita (with triple sec) is part of the Daisy family. [Daisy = spirit + liqueur (usually orange) + lemon or lime juice.] A Margarita is defined by the combination of tequila and lime juice with the liqueur not only balancing the sourness of the lime but also contributing subtle orange notes. The orange liqueur is part of what defines a Margarita.

Understanding that people would rather use agave as a sweetener in place of the beet sugar in a triple sec liqueur, back in 2008 Bruno Giffard and I created Agave Sec liqueur. This is a triple sec sweetened only with agave syrup. So, while qualifying as a liqueur to make a true Margarita/Daisy it is completely devoid of sugar. We formulated Agave Sec to replicate the sweetness of triple secs such as Cointreau so (as stated above) if using Agave Sec to make a 2:1:1 Margarita then you may also want to add a bar spoon of agave syrup.

What citrus fruit

Margaritas are made with Mexican limes - Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) or Persian lime (Citrus latifolia) varieties with the ubiquitous availability of Persian limes making their use by far the most common. However, Margaritas made with equal parts lime and lemon juice are more delicate and arguably better. It's perhaps worth mentioning that the first known printed Margarita recipe, in the December 1953 Esquire Magazine, calls for an ounce of tequila, a dash of triple sec and the juice of half a lime or lemon.

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Salted rim

A salted rim on a Margarita delivers a hit of salt that is too intense and masks the flavour of the drink so instead, I prefer to add half a pinch of salt (or dash saline solution) rather than salting the rim. Although barely detectable by the drinker, this small amount of salt subtlety enhances the drink's flavour.

However, the salt rim is so synonymous with the Margarita that drinkers expect it - even if they do drink from the same area of the glass to avoid another hit of salt. Hence, consider salting just half or two-thirds of the rim to give the drinker the option of avoiding the salt altogether.

To salt the glass, run a lime wedge around the outside of the glass' rim and then roll the rim in salt rather than dipping the rim into juice and then salt. The dipping method coats the inside of the glass with salt which is inevitably washed into the cocktail so polluting it with too much salt.

Margarita variations

Remembering the true categorisation above, the Margarita can loosely be categorised as being a Tequila Sour, a Tequila Sidecar or a Tequila Daisy, but it is now such a well-known and popular drink that it has become a category of cocktail in itself with numerous variations. It even has its own day, Margarita Day which falls on the 22nd February each year.

We boast over 70 different Margarita Recipes on Difford’s Guide. However, the following are our favourites.

ency 73 imageBlood Orange Margarita
- Tequila, triple sec, Campari, blood orange juice, lime juice and sugar.

ency 34 imageCeltic Margarita
- Blended Scotch whisky, triple sec and lemon juice.

ency 83 imageLavender Margarita
- Tequila, lime juice, lavender sugar syrup.

ency 12 imageLolita Margarita
- Honey, tequila, lime juice and bitters.

ency 76 imageLucky Lily Margarita
- Honey, tequila, pineapple juice, lime juice and black pepper.

ency 70 imageMacca Margarita
- Tequila, triple sec, lime juice, orange juice and sugar syrup.

ency 46 imageMargarita on-the-rocks
- Classic 2:1:1 proportioned Margarita with agave and salt.

ency 56 imageMezcal Margarita
- A mezcal based Margarita.

ency 46 imageNapoléon Margarita
- Tequila, Mandarine Napoléon, lime juice and agave syrup.

ency 89 imagePastry War Margarita
- Tequila, mezcal, amaro, elderflower liqueur, lime juice and salt.

ency 72 imagePineapple & Sage Margarita
- Sage leaves, tequila, pineapple juice, lime juice, agave syrup.

ency 66 imageRusty Margarita
- Tequila, Drambuie and lime juice.

ency 24 imageSwedish Margarita
- Tequila, Swedish punch liqueur, lime juice and lemon juice.

ency 13 imageTiki Margarita
- Tequila, almond syrup and lime juice.

ency 55 imageTommy's Margarita
- Made with agave syrup in place of triple sec/orange liqueur.