The Back Story of
There is a thin line between fact and fiction, a line often obscured with the passage of time. Such is the case surrounding the origin of the Margarita, which occurred somewhere during a fifteen year span between the mid-1930s and the late ‘40s. Some versions claim the place of origin as the United States, others Mexico. Weeding through the conflicting accounts made for some interesting detective work. It’s a good story.
The year was 1948 and times in the U.S. were good. The war had ended three years before and the country was experiencing a prolonged period of prosperity. For the rich and famous, Acapulco was an irresistible playground. San Antonio native Margarita Sames and her husband Bill owned a villa near the Flamingo Hotel in Acapulco, Mexico.
The couple lived in Acapulco for part of the year along with a close circle of friends that consisted of Fred MacMurray, Lana Turner, Nicky Hilton, next door neighbor John Wayne, Joe Drown, owner of the Hotel Bel-Air, and restaurateur Shelton McHenrie, owner of the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Los Angeles.
The group was practically inseparable. The Sames house was the setting for many raucous affairs that sometimes lasted days on end. They reveled in the laid back attitude of Acapulco, spending their nights playing by the pool and eating lunch around sunset.
Shortly before Christmas that year, Margarita Sames was challenged by several ranking members of the team to devise a new and exciting cocktail, something to break up their regimen of beer and Bloody Marys. Her initial attempts were loudly and unanimously rejected. Undaunted, Margarita went back to work.
Having grown up in France, Sames was fond of Cointreau, and after spending years vacationing in Mexico, she had developed an appreciation for tequila. She mixed the two together along with some fresh lime juice. She tried different formulations; some came out too sweet, some too tart. Then she hit on what she thought was the perfect blend — one part Cointreau, three parts tequila and one part lime juice. Knowing that most people drank tequila preceded by a lick of salt, Sames chose to garnish her cocktail with a rim of coarse salt.
She brought out a tray of champagne glasses brimming with her new creation. The group enthusiastically proclaimed the cocktail a triumph. It quickly became the group’s signature cocktail, the main course and featured attraction that Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Sames credited the proliferation of the drink to her friends. John Wayne, Fred MacMurray and Lana Turner returned to Hollywood and started spreading the word at their favorite haunts. Nicky Hilton began promoting the cocktail at the Acapulco Hilton, as did Joe Drown at the Hotel Bel-Aire. The swank and fashionable Tail o’ the Cock restaurant near Los Angeles may likely have been where many Americans first sampled the Margarita.
In the years following, Margarita Sames continued serving her cocktail at parties and private gatherings. She spent many afternoons sipping Margaritas with Eleanor Roosevelt, and legendary baseball manager John McGraw, a lifelong friend of the Sames and the Margarita.
In 1993, her friends threw Margarita Sames an 82nd birthday party that lasted five days. The drink of choice...well, you can just imagine.
The Margarita has enjoyed far more than its allotted fifteen minutes of fame. In fact, after climbing into the limelight in the 1970s, the drink has continually ranked among the most frequently requested cocktails in America. A devastating tequila shortage in the ‘90s and subsequent price hikes notwithstanding, the Margarita rage has persevered.
About The Margarita
So what exactly is a Margarita? Ask a hundred bartenders and you may well get 100 slightly different answers. Sure they’d say that it contains tequila, triple sec and lime juice. But how much of each ingredient? What kind of fresh sour mix do you use — lime or lemon? The truth is that despite the Margarita’s enormous popularity there is little consensus as to its recipe.
There are five essential truths about Margaritas that with few exceptions should be considered inviolate. The first of these is that the cocktail is built on a foundation of lime juice, not lemon as is often the case, which means that using standard, lemon-based sweet ‘n’ sour is incorrect. As will be discussed later, a fresh lime sour mix is concocted largely the same way as a fresh lemon sweet ‘n’ sour. If trapped behind the bar with nothing but a bottle of sour mix and an order for a Margarita, squeeze the juice from four lime wedges into the mixing glass (which equals roughly 3/4 ounce of fresh juice) and add an equal amount of the sweet ‘n’ sour. The result will be a balanced mix upon which to build the cocktail, one with a lime-forward character.
Second, the concept of Margaritas and tequila are inseparable. Creative spin-offs aside, the cocktail is made with tequila. Although this may sound a bit obvious, there are several important considerations. There are agave-derived spirits on the market that are not tequila. Their only reason for existing is to offer an inexpensive alternative to tequila. Trust that these products once again prove that you get what you pay for. These products are prohibited from claiming to be a tequila, but to be sure read the label to make sure that it has the CRT mark and an NOM designation. The CRT — Consejo Regulador del Tequila — is the regulatory council of distillers established in 1994 to safeguard standards of the tequila industry. The four digit NOM number appears on every label of tequila. NOM is an acronym for Norma Oficial Mexicana, a set of laws that establish standards of quality for the production of tequila. An NOM number is assigned to an individual distillery, signifying that the brand of tequila was made by that distiller alone.
The third immutable truth about Margaritas involves balance. There are four flavor elements in the cocktail that must be balanced on the palate, namely sweet, tart, the taste of the tequila and the flavor of the orange modifier. Vary too far toward any one extreme and you’re headed for trouble. Balance in this instance means being able to taste all four about equally.
The fourth is that Margaritas need to be vigorously shaken, anything less is problematic. The purpose behind energetically shaking the drink is three-fold. The action thoroughly integrates the ingredients, properly chills the drink and introduces a modicum of water into the mix. The enhanced production value alone of enthusiastically shaking the cocktail makes the exertion worthwhile.
Finally, the garnish on a Margarita is a fresh lime wedge. It is a most functional embellishment, one that allows a guest the option of squeezing more fresh lime juice into the drink. While lime wheels are attractive and in keeping with the theme, they’re not designed for extracting the juice they contain. Using both a lime wheel and lime wedge in combination is a clever compromise between form and function.
As is the case with the Martini, every great bar needs to perfect the recipe for a truly sensational Margarita. It’s simply too popular a cocktail not to. Perhaps a fresh, homemade sour mix will define your Margarita, or the combination of a super-premium tequila and ultra-sophisticated modifier, like Grand Marnier Cuveé de Cent-Cinquantenaire. Regardless of the particulars, perfecting the Margarita is a requisite step to attracting a following.
The Margarita knows no creative boundaries. It’s versatile and can adopt an impressive array of flavors. At the risk of stripping the creative process of its mystery and inspirational genius, there is a formula to engineering a gourmet, high performance Margarita. It involves tweaking one or more of the ingredients. Learning how these elements affect the dynamics of the finished Margarita is at the heart of the creative process. Here then are the best kept secrets behind America’s greatest Margaritas.
- Tequila — Not all tequilas are created equal, which means that at the onset several qualitative decisions need to be made. The first involves whether to feature a mixto or 100% agave tequila in your Margarita.
Mixtos (mees-toh) are the principle type of tequila imported into the United States. They are made from a blend containing a legal minimum 51% agave and other, non-agave sugars. These sugars are added to the aguamiel and water mixture during fermentation. Mixtos are typically distilled in technologically advanced column stills, which produce lighter bodied, more highly rectified spirits.
While mixtos tequilas are made from blends, and therefore frequently inexpensive, it is a mistake to categorically dismiss them as low quality. The best selling brands of tequila in the world are mixtos. They are exuberant, lively spirits with an edgy, vibrant quality that distinguishes them from other light spirits.
The premium counterparts to mixtos are 100% agave tequilas. As the name would imply, these pure tequilas are made entirely out of blue agave. The result is a spirit of incomparable quality. The production of 100% agave tequilas is closely scrutinized by the government to ensure that stringent quality standards are maintained. Seals are affixed to the opening of the barrels to certify when the tequila was barreled and to guarantee that nothing was added during aging. By law, a brand must state that it is a 100% blue agave tequila on its front label. These ultra-premium tequilas rank among some of the finest spirits in the world.
The second qualitative decision is which style of tequila to use in your Margarita. Unaged silver (blanco) tequila is often featured in the cocktail, not because of its relatively lower cost, but because it adds a vitality to the Margarita that the aged, more reserved tequila doesn’t quite manage. Gold tequila — joven abocado — is produced by adding caramel coloring and flavor additives to silver tequila, giving it an amber/golden hue and a touch of sweetness, or wood/oak flavor.
Reposado (rested) tequila is aged in wood for a minimum of two months, although most remain in the oak four to eight months. It is the best selling style of tequila in Mexico. Reposado is matured just long enough for its character to soften, while leaving the inherent quality of the agave unaffected by the tannins in the wood. Reposado tequila is often as spicy and herbaceous as a blanco tequila, but with the added richness of the oak. It strikes a true balance between the fresh, spirited character of a blanco tequila and the mellow refinement of an añejo.
Añejo tequila must be aged a minimum of one year in casks 600 liters or smaller, with most aged in 180 liter, oak barrels. The smaller barrels impart more wood character to the tequila. Most distillers mature their tequila in barrels previously used to age bourbon. The oak imparts less tannin into the tequila imbuing it with a subtle brandy character. Añejo tequilas are typically smooth and luxurious. They are characteristically aromatic with a broad, well-rounded flavor and a long, lingering finish.
The final consideration is what quality of tequila to use in your Margarita. As will be a consistent theme in this book, the better the liquor, the better the finished cocktail will taste. So don’t hesitate committing a super-premium tequila to a Margarita. A growing phenomenon is to create a Margarita made with ultra-premium tequila, which are those costing more than $100 per 750ml. When looking to devise a top-shelf Margarita choose a recipe that adequately showcases the tequila. The recipe should have a minimum of ingredients that may obscure the enhanced quality of the tequila. Also to best accentuate the flavor of the tequila, the cocktail should be served straight up rather than on the rocks, or blended.
- Pairing Tequila — Where’s it written that you can only use one style or brand of tequila in your signature Margaritas? The objective behind splitting the tequila base in the drink is to give it more character by pairing two or more complementary styles of tequila. Splitting the cocktail’s foundation has expanded into several creative avenues. One is to pair the tequila in the drink with equal parts of such character-laded spirits as flavored vodkas and flavored rums. Another is to couple the tequila with a lesser amount of another spirit altogether, such as brandy, gin, or bourbon.
- Infusions — When looking to craft a signature Margarita, consider building the cocktail on a base of infused tequila. Mixologists are infusing spirits with everything from kiwis, melons and pineapples to ginger, peppers and sun dried tomatoes. It’s a straightforward and uncomplicated process involving steeping the spirit of choice with a variety of fresh fruit, spices, or vegetables in large, airtight containers. Several days later the tequila will have been infused with flavors, color, aroma and loads of appealing character.
- Orange Modifier — The modifier is an essential ingredient in a cocktail. Its role is to soften the edge of the liquor while complementing the spirit’s natural flavor. It should never dominate a recipe, rather act in a supporting role, giving the cocktail dimension and personality. The orange modifier in the Margarita is intended to seamlessly meld the tequila and lime juice base into a well balanced cocktail.
Triple sec is a clear, relatively inexpensive orange-flavored liqueur. The best advice governing its use is to select the most premium brand within reach. As one might anticipate, there is a wide range of quality among the various brands of triple sec on the market. The most important selection criteria are a brilliant orange flavor and a clean, crisp finish. An inferior triple sec can negate much of your creative efforts. Another often relied upon cordial is Blue Curaçao, an orange-flavored liqueur slightly sweeter than triple sec and beloved for its luminous blue color.
When preparing a super-premium Margarita, Cointreau is an extremely popular choice as the modifier. The French liqueur is unsurpassed in the role. Cointreau is crystal clear, highly aromatic and imbued with a vibrant orange palate. The advantage to using Cointreau in a signature Margarita is that the liqueur will augment the cocktail’s bouquet and taste profile, but won’t alter its color.
Another popular, super-premium modifier is Grand Marnier. While Cointreau and Grand Marnier are both premium orange liqueurs, the latter is formulated with a cognac base. Modifying a premium Margarita with Grand Marnier will slightly alter the cocktail’s color and introduce the flavor of brandy and sweet, succulent oranges. Other super-premium liqueurs in this class include Italian GranGala and Extase from France. Each is an orange, brandy-based liqueur with a proven track record of performing brilliantly in Margaritas.
When preparing top-shelf Margaritas a creative option is to split the modifier by using equal parts of both Cointreau and Grand Marnier.
- Liqueurs — Liqueurs run the gamut of flavors, colors and cost, making them excellent modifiers. Pick a flavor and there’s likely a liqueur that matches it. In fact, liqueurs are frequently relied upon for enhancing the flavor and texture of specialty Margaritas.
Several brands of liqueurs have risen far beyond the call of duty. Proven Margarita performers include the French black raspberry liqueur Chambord, the Japanese honeydew liqueur Midori, the Italian almond liqueur Disaronno Amaretto, American made PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, Mexican herbal liqueur Damiana and Agavero, a Mexican liqueur flavored with blue agave.
Several recipes combine more than one liqueur to achieve the desired taste profile. Rarely will adding a splash of a liqueur do anything but jazz up a Margarita.
- Scratch Mix — The underlying foundation of the Margarita and source of the cocktail’s vibrancy is the base sour mix. Its quality and creative composition greatly affects the finished cocktail. Part of the secret to making a world-class Margarita mix lies in selecting high quality, great tasting limes. But much of the artistry comes into play in the proportions used. Most scratch recipes call for 3 parts lime juice to 1 part of simple syrup (3:1). If the resulting mix is deemed too tart, shift the proportions closer toward 2:1.
It should be noted that many a great fresh lime sour mix has been crafted using a slightly larger cast of performers. An added splash or two of fresh orange, lemon or grapefruit juice is a proven way to add more dimension and pizzazz to the mix.
A few tips about juicing limes. Fruit at room temperature yields more juice than chilled fruit. Avoid getting the bitter white pith of the lime into the juice. While pulp in orange or grapefruit juice is a cache of quality, lime and lemon juice needs to be strained before use. Pouring freshly squeezed juice through a cheesecloth (chinois), or strainer will do the trick.
A sour mix made using fresh lime juice needs to be refrigerated. While only a guideline, most fresh juices won’t keep much more than 24 hours before needing to be discarded.
- Sweetener — Simple syrup is a workhorse behind the bar and crucial to making a delicious fresh sour mix. It is made with equal parts of boiling water and sugar. Its advantage when making cocktails is that unlike granulated sugar, simple syrup will immediately go into solution.
- Base Modifiers — Welcome to one of the poorest kept secrets in mixology, namely that Margaritas taste great when blended with fruit. Devising a fresh fruit puree to add to the cocktail requires little more effort than plugging in the blender. Use sour mix, simple syrup or fresh lime juice to adjust the balance of the fruit puree, preventing it from becoming overly sweet or too acidic and tart.
Consider alternative base modifiers such as jellied cranberry sauce, prickly pear marmalade, Bartlett pears, or applesauce. The realm of possibilities is bounded only by your imagination.
- Salted rims — Before unleashing a signature Margarita make sure that it looks as fabulous as it tastes. That process begins with the ritual of rimming the glass with salt. Affixing the salt is best accomplished by wetting the outside of the rim with lime juice and then dipping the glass into a saucer of kosher salt. The benefit being the salt won’t adhere to the inside of the glass where it would quickly dissolve into the Margarita.
In this day and age consider salting only half the rim. This will allow all guests to receive a well-dressed Margarita while affording them the opportunity of moderating how much salt they consume. If given the time, salt the Margarita glasses in advance, allowing the lime juice and salt combination to harden. This will alleviate the messy problem of salt falling off the rim of the glass.
There are recipes that call for a sugared rim, typically fruit Margaritas, or recipes on the sweeter side. In the past, one was limited to using conventional granulated sugar on the rim. Now there are a number of brands of colored and flavored sugars, not to mention raw, or brown sugar. Another option is using powdered lemonade mix on the rim. It has a sweet lemon flavor and an attractive color. For an entirely different presentation, rim the edge of a glass first with grenadine before dipping it into powdered lemonade mix.
- Garnish — The final touch to any noteworthy Margarita is the garnish. The classic garnish for the cocktail is a lime wedge, which permits people to add a delightful blast of fresh lime juice to the drink, should they choose to do so. As mentioned before, lime wheels are attractive, but not functional.
There are two mistakes people make when garnishing a Margarita. The first is outfitting the cocktail with a puny lime wedge. Why garnish the cocktail with an inadequate sliver of fruit? What people want is a hefty lime wedge that they can get their hands on to squeeze the fresh juice into their drink.
The second mistake is just dropping the lime wedge into the drink. Do bartenders really expect a guest to fish the lime out of the drink with their fingers? Or what about a bartender who first squeezes the lime wedge before dropping it into the drink. Now there’s a crushed piece of fruit staring up at the guest. The appropriate move is to hook the lime wedge on the rim of the glass and allow the guest to do with the garnish as they see fit.
One last piece of advice regarding the process of creating a world-class Margarita. Years of experience suggest, begin by concocting a delicious and imminently refreshing base sour mix. If it’s well balanced it will taste sensational by itself. Then add in the tequila and modifier. It should be a smooth, interesting journey from there.