I remember the first time I made a Margarita. It was shockingly good, completely different from anything I had been served in a restaurant or bar. It wasn’t the tequila—I’m certain I was using a famous cheap gold blend, or mixto; no, it was the fresh lime juice, bright and sassy, and it raised the drink to an eye-opening new level. There’s no two ways about it: tequila and fresh lime go perfectly together; tequila and industrial sweet/sour or Margarita mix, not so much.

The Margarita seems like an ideal and obvious combination of flavors; it’s peculiar there is no written mention of it until Esquire made it their “drink of the month” in December, 1953. There are tons of stories, claims by bartenders from California to Tijuana to Acapulco and beyond, each of whom invented the Margarita for some showgirl or socialite or ambassador’s daughter… yeah, right. Legends and celebrity tales aside, there are two schools of serious thought on the Margarita’s origins: the “Daisy” school and the “Sidecar” (or Picador) school.

The Margarita Cocktail, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Margarita Cocktail

The “daisy” is basically a sour sweetened with triple sec or orange curaçao instead of (or in addition to) straight sugar, and optionally topped with a bit of soda to sparkle it up a bit. It was already a common combination in the latter half of the 19th century, and it seems unlikely that among the brandy, gin, and whiskey daisies, there weren’t plenty of tequila daisies being served in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. And anyone whose first (or second) language is Spanish already knows where I’m going with this: the Spanish word for daisy is “margarita.” Daisy school philosophy is that the drink has probably been around for a long time, not so much an “invention,” but rather an implementation of the well-understood Daisy class of cocktails.

Meanwhile, over at the Sidecar school: historian Ted Haigh, whose cocktail knowledge I have every reason to respect, suggests that the Margarita is of Anglo origin, very possibly an English import derived from the Sidecar. Tequila was apparently quite popular in England in the years after WWI (I’d love to know the history of that), and the presence of the often-specified Cointreau, combined with a strong similarity to the Sidecar, and the exact match with a drink called the Picador (1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book,) leads Haigh to his theory of the British-borne Margarita.

As is often the case with classic cocktails, origins are muddy and will not get any clearer with time. Whatever the history, the fundamentals of the recipe are quite stable: tequila, lime, and triple sec, and that traditional salted rim.

Here is the Margarita:

The Margarita Cocktail

  • 2 oz tequila blanco (Patron Silver, El Tesoro Platinum)
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • ¼ oz simple syrup if needed
  • Splash of soda (optional)
  • lime garnish

Shake tequila, lime, Cointreau, and simple with ice until well chilled. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass or over ice in a rocks glass, optionally half-rimmed with coarse salt. Optionally splash with soda. Garnish with lime.

The Margarita is very forgiving on proportions. I normally make this 2:1:1 version, but as often happens, the historical research for this article got me interested in another version: the 1:1:1 Sidecar model, which turns out to be quite drinkable.

The other thing that surprised me in my research was the idea of adding a splash of soda. I have never seen a Margarita served this way, but it is consistent with its Daisy heritage, and it tastes great. It changes the way the flavors blend, or perhaps the sparkle just changes the way I perceive them—it seems to tone down the lime just a bit, and brightens the tequila. (I blame the soda idea on David Wondrich, who includes an intriguing section on Daisy history in his 2007 Imbibe!.)

I have seen recipes that substitute Grand Marnier for the Cointreau. To my taste, this seems to muddy the flavors. I prefer to stick to the leaner taste of the Cointreau, or of Patron’s Citrónge.

Margarita is one of the few drinks with recognizable glassware, the party-esque deep-bottomed coupe. There are many theories on how that glass came about, and came to be associated with the Margarita. Whatever the history, it’s practical to consider that it maximizes the saltable rim, and is definitely a boon to salt lovers. I am glassware agnostic when it comes to the Margarita, though the only sensible way to serve it if you want to add ice is a rocks glass.

Oh, and don’t forget the salt! The salted rim is the hallmark garnish for the Margarita, and it goes beautifully with the rest of the flavors in this drink. I prefer to limit the salt in my diet, so I usually make the Margarita without the salt rim, or with a half rim, so I can avoid it I want to, but sneak the occasional taste along the way.