Growing up in San Diego, during the cocktail dark ages, it’s possible that margaritas were the only cocktails I knew existed. Any Mexican restaurant worth its salted rims had a long list of margaritas to choose from. I still remember ordering my first margarita with clarity. This was a mark of adulthood in a way that no other drink could be.
Along with all the other excellent drinks (both new and rediscovered) that have come along with the cocktail renaissance, the margarita has had its share of interesting twists (far beyond the flavored tequila smoothies which once seemed so exotic to me). Last summer, I sipped a smoked sage margarita in Santa Fe, after watching my bartender singe a sage leaf with his lighter before shaking.
But the margarita is a classic for a reason, like so many other simple drinks that rely on excellent ingredients and balance. It’s no wonder that this beloved bar staple would have countless people claiming to have invented it.
One such person was Carlos "Danny" Herrera, whose restaurant Rancho La Gloria was located near Tijuana. Apparently, sometime around 1938, Herrera had a difficult customer, aspiring actress Marjorie King, who claimed to be allergic to all hard alcohol except tequila. Herrera is said to have made the drink as a riff on the classic ingredients in a tequila shot.
Another story puts forward Danny Negrete at the Garci Crespo Hotel. Legend has it that he created the drink for his sister-in-law, Margarita, as a wedding present in 1936.
Also in 1936, James Graham, a newspaper man from Iowa, took a trip south of the border. He’d heard tell of an Irish barkeep named Madden. He was known for a drink called the Tequila Daisy.
This might not mean much to you, but though the Daisy family of cocktails has mostly disappeared from menus, once they reigned supreme. The recipes varied a little, but usually you combined fresh citrus, a liqueur (frequently orange), and a base spirit. If you take some lime, curaçao, and tequila, you have a Tequila Daisy. Sound familiar?
There are a couple of other reasons that I’m inclined to believe this origin story. For one thing, the bar owner is said to have told the Iowa newsman that the drink was a mistake. He meant to make some other Daisy and ended up reaching for the wrong bottle, to rave reviews. I could see this happening in a busy bar, and creating alchemy. For another, the word for daisy in Spanish is margarita, which strikes me as more than just coincidence.
It’s also possible that many of these people came to the same conclusions in different places, especially with so many simple, well-balanced drinks already in circulation. It’s only a matter of time before someone puts lime, tequila, and triple sec together to see what happens.
Whoever originated the margarita, it didn’t appear in print until December 1953, in Esquire magazine. From there it became ubiquitous, mostly made in a classic version until Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine in 1971, to the possible universal delight of blenders everywhere.
Regardless of its origin, this drink is still part of my own history. One sip, and I’m transported to San Diego again. One sip, and I’m home.
You can make this classic recipe (a staple shared by Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. King Cocktail, for liquor.com), or use it as a jumping off point (rather like a Daisy recipe).
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.75 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1 oz Cointreau, triple sec or another orange liqueur
1.5 oz Blanco tequila
Kosher salt (optional)
Add the ingredients to a shaker filled with ice and shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or rocks glass filled with fresh ice.
Garnish with a lime wheel.