Food & Drink - The Margarita - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time
Combining the tang of lime juice and the sweetness of orange liqueur with the distinctive punch of tequila, the classic Margarita ticks all the right boxes. But if you pick up a book on cocktails published before the 1970’s it's unlikely to mention tequila or Margaritas at all, mainly because the Mexicans weren't exporting their spirit to North America or to Europe in any serious quantities until that decade. Very quickly though, from the 1970’s onwards, the Margarita became a staple on cocktail bar menus, where it has remained ever since. Understandably, because she is so refreshingly different from the majority of cocktails available up to that time which were either gin based, whisk(e)y based or rum based - and that salty rim was wild and smacked of seaside holidays!
The Margarita is unquestionably the flagship tequila cocktail.
One of the best known tequila brands - and, as it turns out, by far the biggest - is José Cuervo, dating back to 1795 when Jose María Guadalupe de Cuervo got the first charter to produce commercial tequila from King Carlos IV of Spain. During the 20th Century the brand was owned for generations by the Beckmann family of Mexico - themselves descendants of Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo. But in 2017 it was bought by the Mexican drinks company Becle (major shareholders: the Beckmann family. Funny old world). Jose Cuervo, with 6 different tequila bottlings, sell fully 30% of the world's tequila by volume: that’s a colossal 9.5 million cases of tequila annually. To put that into perspective the second largest brand, Sauza Tequila, owned by Beam Suntory, sells a mere 2.8 million cases. That said, one doesn't have to look very hard beyond the supermarkets to find a host of interesting artisanal tequilas on the market - I myself am partial to Ocho from Distileria La Alteña and to Tapatio Reposado from Arandas.
Here’s the classic Margarita recipe:
2 pts Tequila. It's best with 100% agave tequila.
1 pt Freshly squeezed lime juice
Sea salt flakes for the rim.
A lime wedge on the rim.
Using the lime wedge wet the rim of a coupe glass and then roll the outside edge in the sea salt flakes. You can do just half the rim so as to give people the option of not drinking through salt. Alternatively you can pre-chill the glass in the freezer and then, when you take it out, the condensation that forms on the glass will serve to stick the salt flakes to the rim - and a chilled glass will mean less ice and less dilution of the drink. Put the tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur into a shaker with ice. Shake well, strain into the prepared glass, garnish with a lime wedge on the rim, and serve immediately.
Let's go back to the beginning:
Tequila is made from a spiky succulent called an agave - sometimes called the Blue agave or Tequila agave - in several states of Mexico, but primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 65 kms northwest of Guadalajara. It is related to the yucca plant and is even a distant cousin of asparagus! The regulation of the area of production is rather like the protective AOC system for wines in France: the spirit can only be called tequila if it's produced within this defined region - like you can't call a fizzy white wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes “champagne” anywhere outside the defined champagne producing area in northeastern France. An identical spirit to tequila made the same way but outside the defined region is called a mescal. And mescals can be used for a Margarita and some mescals are as good as tequila and cheaper, so it pays to browse and buy wisely.
The leathery spiky agave fronds (you can hardly call them leaves!) are pruned off to leave just the heart, called the piña, which can weigh over 100 kgs each. After harvesting, the piñas are slowly baked to break down their complex sugars, then the baked piñas are either shredded or mashed under a large grinding stone wheel called a tahona to extract the precious agave juice. This is then fermented and distilled twice - strict regulations say it has to be twice - and either immediately bottled as ‘silver’ or Blanco tequila; or it is aged in oak barrels for between two months and a year, in which case it acquires a pale yellow colour and is called a Reposado (“rested”); or Añejo meaning it is aged for between one and three years during which it develops a mellower flavour and a rich amber color.
Tequila has a powerful affinity with lime juice (a fruit also native to Mexico) and the dryer orange note from the Triple Sec or the Cointreau in a Margarita adds complexity and a dash of sophisticated sweetness. The optional salt on the rim tempers the acidity of the lime juice - but it may not be needed if the lime is ripe and the drink is sweet enough. The cynic in me says the salted rim does for the Mexican bar owner what pork scratchings and peanuts do for a British pub landlord: give ‘em salt, they get thirsty, they order more drinks. It's about turnover, not about gastronomy. But if you do salt the rim be sure to use sea salt flakes, preferably the milder Fleur de Sel, and not cooking salt - that'll make it taste like licking the deck of a trawler.
The origin of the Margarita
There are several more-or-less tempting tales dating from the 1930’s of chaps mixing a Margarita for ‘the first time’, but clearly it would be foolish to overlook that tequila and limes and agave syrup are ineffably indigenous to Mexico - and other central American countries - so folks would have been mixing them together since time immemorial. So who ‘invented’ the Margarita is a bit like Columbus discovering America: the indig would be saying “Hell-ooo, we've been doing this for, like, everrrr!”. How could these mid-20th century gringos invent something the Mexicans, amongst others, had been doing for centuries?
So instead of looking for an ‘inventor’ of this cocktail we can browse how it came to be enjoyed in the USA and western Europe over the course of the middle of the 20th century. As early as 1936 Iowa newspaper editor James Graham found and wrote about a Margarita-like cocktail in Tijuana and, in the same year, a drink called the Tequila Daisy was mentioned in the Syracuse Herald… Margarita is the Spanish for daisy, the flower.
One of the oldest stories is from 1938 and has the Margarita being invented by Carlos "Danny" Herrera at his restaurant Rancho La Gloria, halfway between Tijuana and Rosarito, Baja California, for glamourous customer and former Ziegfeld dancer Marjorie King, who was allergic to many spirits but mercifully not to tequila...
Then there is a claim that the Margarita was first mixed at Tommy's Place Bar in Juárez, Chihuahua - just a stone’s throw from the Mexican border at El Paso - on July 4, 1942 by Pancho Morales, who later left bartending in Mexico to become a milkman in the US. I so love that having ‘invented’ the iconic Margarita he decided to be a milkman. But anyway, as appealing as this story is, as mentioned above, a border town barman ‘inventing’ the cocktail in 1942 when his ancestors had surely been drinking such a mixture for centuries is hardly convincing.
Next we jump forward to 1948 when it is said that Dallas socialite Margarita Sames concocted the drink for her guests at her Acapulco vacation home. Tommy Hilton was among the guests and brought the drink back to the bars of his Hilton hotel chain. However, the Jose Cuervo company had already been running ad campaigns for the Margarita three years earlier, since 1945, with the slogan, "Margarita: It's more than a girl's name" - so it seems more likely Mrs Sames simply mixed a popular local drink for her gringo guests.
Another origin tale also dates from 1948 and suggests the cocktail was first mixed at the legendary Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas, where head bartender Santos Cruz created the Margarita for singer Peggy Lee - Peggy being short for Margaret, Spanish equivalent Margarita - geddit?! But with a name like Santos Cruz one can imagine he had this Mexican recipe in his locker from way back and just whipped it out when sultry Peggy sashayed into his bar - and who can blame him?!
What we can say with some certainty is that during the 1930’s and 40’s people from the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California discovered the charms of the Margarita while south of the border, and from there its popularity spread northwards, going hand in hand with the increasing importation and availability of tequila in the USA. And from there word spread across the pond to Europe. And we do know that the first published recipe for a Margarita appeared in 1953 in Esquire magazine and it's pretty much the same recipe we use today.
A Tommy’s Margarita has quite a following, using agave syrup instead of Triple Sec or Cointreau, to give an additional indigenous agave botanical flavour as well as the sweetness - but it's not always easy to find. It was devised in San Francisco in 1990 by Julio Bermejo at his parents' restaurant called Tommy's, and is thought by some purists to be a more Mexican expression of a Margarita. Now it is entirely possible that the only agave syrup I could lay my hands on in the south of France is crap - it is after all made by The Groovy Food Company which does not inspire confidence. And I'm happy it's organic, I really am. But I detect no botanical agave notes at all; I just detect it's declared 66% sugars. So I'm going to stick with Triple Sec or, if I'm feeling flush, Cointreau. [Note to self: agaves grow wild here in the south of France and I have some in my garden. Is there an opportunity for a mescal?]
While the classic Margarita on the rocks will quench your thirst on a hot day, if it’s a real scorcher and you need to call for back-up a Cucumber Margarita is your ideal compadre. Cucumber is known to be a refreshing fruit (yes, it’s a fruit) for salads, and here it gives the cocktail a hydrating, crisp vegetal flavour, which highlights the natural, bracing agave notes of the tequila. It transforms the Margarita into a garden fresh, spa day treat - even lending a veneer of healthiness and nutrition! Easy to make: simply muddle fresh cucumber slices in the bottom of a beaker, then add the standard Margarita ingredients of tequila, lime juice and Triple Sec. Salt the rim of the glass (optional), add ice cubes, and then strain the liquid into the glass over the ice and serve.
Hibiscus & Berry Margarita:
This one's a bit wacky but why not, it's Friday!
2 cups dried Hibiscus flowers (also native to Mexico, giving a wonderful fragrance)
1 cup Sugar
3 cups Water
2 cups Frozen mixed red fruits: blackberries, red currants, black currants, blueberries, raspberries…
1.5 cups Tequila
Combine the sugar and water over high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Put the hibiscus flowers into a sealable container; pour the syrup in and stir gently so that the flowers are covered. Seal the container and put in the fridge overnight; and take the berries out of the freezer to thaw overnight. Next day: strain the flowers out of the hibiscus mixture and put the liquid into a blender with the thawed berries. Blitz.
Strain the mixture to remove pips and seeds. Add tequila to the mix; stir and serve over ice cubes and enjoooyyy.
The Margarita has been a fashionable drink for the last 40-50 years so, as night follows day, the Marketing honchos have produced ready-mixed bottles of it ‘to save you the trouble’, and they're to be found pretty cheap on supermarket shelves. But please please avoid these lazy and far-too-sweet Margarita mixes - usually just junk in a bottle - and make your own from scratch with quality ingredients.
For an immersive tequila and Margarita experience, this year Jose Cuervo are launching a novel holiday package: now you can add the all-you-can-drink luxury train trip from Guadalajara to Tequila to your booze bucket list (you know you have one). The train ride features an open tequila bar, then there's a tour of the distillery, a professional tasting, a Margarita-making master class and a cultural show (Yeh, that last one, never mind - but by then you'll probably be pretty anesthetised). You also have the opportunity to explore the town of Tequila and learn more about harvesting agave on the all-day tour. Did I mention there’s an all-you-can-drink tequila bar?? Sign. Me. Up.
The Margarita is now indisputably one of the world’s most popular cocktails of all time anywhere ever. And for good reason: it will cool you down on a hot day and warm you up on a cool day. Any day is a good day for a Margarita.
We stay Spanish but from Central America we swim a short way eastwards into the Caribbean, for the revolucionaria Cuba Libre! Join us for another drink.
Cuba esta Libre!
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Disclaimer: This article is not for commercial ends and no gratuities were received from any products mentioned herein. Chrystal 2019