Jesse Estes is one of the world’s leading tequila experts. As well as a London-based bartender and author he is a brand ambassador for Tequila Ocho that has spent years learning about the spirit. Here he gives us his take on the fabled story of the Margarita, a drink that’s drenched in mystery.
This storytelling goes hand in hand with a classic cocktail, and while there isn’t always time to regale the customers with tall tales, every now and then, a bit of historical context can make a drink more compelling when introduced for the first time.
The Margarita is indisputably tequila’s most famous incarnation as a mixed drink, and arguably one of the most widely – and wildly – popular beverages of the second half of the 20th century. Yet for such a ubiquitous libation, the Margarita’s true origins remain largely uncertain, though many theories, conjectures, and legends prevail. They range from its creation taking place in different hotels or bars – on, north, or south of the Mexican border – or at a Texas socialite’s house in Acapulco; that it was named after a bartender’s girlfriend who had her head shot off; and that it was made for a silent movie star who simply couldn’t stomach her tequila any other way. As the publication Texas Monthly put it memorably in an issue: “Who created the Margarita, and when? It would be easier to identify the missing link between man and ape.”
Danny Herrera claimed to have invented the Margarita in the late 40’s at the Rancho La Gloria Hotel, located about seven miles south of Tijuana in Baja California. As the story goes, he created the drink for Marjorie King, a showgirl and star of the silent screen. She had claimed to be allergic to every type of alcohol except tequila, although she couldn’t drink it straight or with lime and salt. Herrera mixed three parts tequila, two parts Cointreau and one part fresh lemon juice, serving it in a stemmed glass rimmed with rock salt, and named the drink ‘Margarita’ – Spanish for Marjorie. When, later in his life, Herrera was asked when exactly he had first mixed this drink, he thought it would have been in October or November of 1947 or 1948, adding that: “Three things happen when you get old. You lose your memory, and I can’t recall the other two.”
One story goes that Margarita Sames, a Texas socialite, originally came up with the Margarita during the 1948 Christmas holiday at one of her parties in Acapulco, Mexico. She was attempting to mix tequila with Cointreau and eventually added lime and a salt rim. According to Sames, the drink remained unnamed or was simply referred to as ‘Margarita’s drink’ until her husband gave her a set of champagne glasses with her first name engraved on them, and the drink’s name was born. The cocktail’s recipe was spread by many of the social matron’s influential friends, among them John Wayne and the Hilton family. This is the inception story that the French triple sec producer Cointreau has officially adopted, and frequently included in their advertising and marketing campaigns.
Next there’s the story told by Vern Underwood Sr., then president of Young’s Market Co., which had acquired the Californian distribution of Jose Cuervo in the 1930’s. Underwood credited Johnnie Durlesser, at the time a bartender at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, as having created the Margarita, after he asked Durlesser to recreate a drink he had tried in Mexico. Durlesser allegedly named the drink he created after his wife Margaret (hispanicised to Margarita). Underwood began marketing this “new-found’ drink, taking out full-page advertisements made famous by the slogan “Margarita, more than a girl’s name.” Regardless of whether Johnnie Durlesser actually created the first Margarita, Underwood’s ad campaign helped to boost the drink to superstardom and possibly even had an influence in propelling the Cuervo brand to the market leader position it now enjoys.
An earlier theory surrounds Danny Negrete, who claims to have invented the Margarita in 1936. The story goes that Negrete created the drink for his girlfriend at the bar he had opened with his brother in the Garci Crespo hotel, in Puebla, Mexico, naming the drink after her – comprised of equal parts tequila, triple sec, and lime juice, served in a rocks glass over crushed ice. However, according to Salvador Negrete, Daniel’s son, his father created the drink in honour of his sister-in-law at his brother David’s wedding (you can probably guess her name). It is also noteworthy to add that Danny Negrete went on to work at a number of other bars in Mexico, one of which being the Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana – yet another venue claiming to be the birthplace of the drink.
Looking to the earliest mentions of the Margarita in print, we find the December 1953 issue of Esquire proclaiming “She’s from Mexico, and her name is the Margarita cocktail,” with the recipe quoted as one ounce of tequila with a dash of triple sec and the juice of a lime or lemon. However, the article doesn’t credit anyone as being the original creator of the Margarita. Long story short, will we ever know the Margarita’s true origins? Like all the best legends, it is probably best to take these different accounts of the drink’s alleged creation like you would a nice cold Margarita – with a generous pinch of salt.