The Truth About the Margarita

Where did one of the world's great cocktails come from? And where, alas, has it gone?

We serious drinkers hold these truths to be self-evident: A martini is made with gin and (very little) dry vermouth, unless it's a vodka martini. A Manhattan is made with sweet vermouth, bitters, and rye — not bourbon or Canadian whisky. And a margarita is concocted out of tequila, fresh lime juice, and orange liqueur, period. (The International Bartenders' Association defines the standard as 50 percent tequila, 29 percent Cointreau, and 21 percent lime juice; that's too much sweet stuff and not enough tequila for me, but never mind.) Most important, the margarita includes no simple syrup or agave syrup and no strawberries or mangos; it is not frozen, unless you're drinking it outside in Alaska in the wintertime and set it down for too long.

Who invented the margarita? Nobody knows for sure. When I used to hang out a little too often on Sunday afternoons at the legendary sticky-floored cantina called Hussong's in Ensenada, the bartenders would always brag that it had been created there, in 1941, by a bartender named Charlie (or Carlos) Orozco, who named it in honor of a young German woman named, well, Margarita. (The more common German form of the name is Margaret, just like in English, but never mind again.) The only thing is that Orozco's recipe, which survives, uses not orange liqueur but a liqueur based on damiana, an alleged aphrodisiac. Several other places in Baja California claim to have invented the drink. So does the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas. There's always a woman named Margarita, or some variation thereon, involved.

A version of the margarita creation myth that does not involve a woman credits it to some unnamed Mexican or border-region bartender who concocted it on the model of a popular 19th-century cocktail called the daisy — margarita being the Spanish word for that flower. Supposedly, said bartender basically substituted tequila for the brandy with which the drink was originally made. But the traditional daisy recipe calls for brandy, rum, Curaçao (which is indeed orange liqueur), lemon juice, and gum syrup (sugar and water syrup in which gum arabic is used as an emulsifier). Sorry, but that's a little too much of a stretch for me.

My theory is that the model for the margarita was the sidecar. This is an excellent cocktail whose origins date to the period between the two World Wars. Harry MacElhone, proprietor of the legendary Harry's Bar in Paris, long claimed to have invented it and named it in honor of a regular who used to get so drunk that he'd always arrange to arrive and leave in the sidecar of a friend's motorcycle. The bar at the Ritz Hotel in Paris also claims to have made the first sidecar — and there is a school of thought that credits it to a private club in London. In any case, the sidecar is made with cognac (a modern variation, made with armagnac, is called a sidearm), Cointreau or Grand Marnier (both orange liqueurs), and lemon juice, with its rim dusted with powdered sugar. A bartender in Mexico or thereabouts, perhaps seeking to sell more tequila to gringos who hadn't mastered the art of shots accompanied by a squeeze of lime and a lick of salt, could easily have substituted tequila for cognac and, because lemons are little used or appreciated in Mexico, used lime juice in place of the original citrus. Now, sugar on the rim of a tequila drink (as I discovered once at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, where some bartender thought it would be a good idea to rim a margarita glass with half salt, half sugar), is pretty disgusting. And, hey, tequila goes well with salt. So…There's your damn margarita!

My ideal margarita — and I plan to demonstrate my affection by having two or three of them this evening — is made thusly: I squeeze one juicy lime (or, better, three or four juicy Key limes, which have more of a bite and a stronger flavor) into a cocktail shaker, then fill it  two-thirds of the way up with ice. I free-pour about 3 ounces of good tequila into the shaker (my go-to bottling is José Cuervo Tradicional Reposado), add a splash of Citronge or Cointreau (or, if I can get it, the Mexican imitation, Controy, which is slightly drier), and a splash of water to bring all the flavors out fully (as you'd do with neat whisky). Then I shake the shaker vigorously, 50 times, and let it rest for a minute or so. Meanwhile, I run one of the cut lime halves around the rim of a wine glass and dip it in sea salt.

All those other margaritas? Sometimes they're pretty good. But they're not margaritas, any more than vodka and crème de cacao is a martini.

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