Spirits Confidential with Max Solano
Celebrating National Margarita Day
When we consider the most popular and commonly consumed cocktails in this country, there will certainly be a very short list of them. And then there’s everything else! Some of these mega-popular libations did not either exist or gain much notoriety until Prohibition (1920-1933) or thereafter. Atop of this list, is the mack daddy of all tequila-based cocktails: the Margarita. A very simple, yet delicious cocktail traditionally consisting of tequila, Triple Sec (orange liqueur) and lime juice (or fresh sour). Not only is the Margarita one of the most commonly requested cocktails, but it’s also one that has the most riffs and modern variations. The Margarita had reached such a high in popularity in the US, that February 22nd has officially been recognized as National Margarita Day (year of inception is not known).
The history of the Margarita has several possible and debated origins, depending on whom you ask. Tequila, a native and very heavily regulated product of Mexico, was first shipped to Texas several years after our Civil War ended, but did not start to become a household name in the US until World War II, when importing whisky from Europe became difficult, as well as sourcing the very limited amount of whiskey being produced in this country at that time. One of the more popularized versions of the Margarita’s origin is when in 1938 Carlos "Danny" Herrera at his restaurant Rancho La Gloria, halfway between Tijuana and Rosarito, Baja California, created a similar tequila cocktail recipe for customer and former Ziegfeld dancer Marjorie King, who was allergic to many spirits, but not to tequila. There are other accounts that from a timeline perspective would take us a few years back or others, several years forward. A close friend and trusted cocktail author and confidant, Livio Lauro, cited in his book, Liquid Legacy, that New York-based cocktail historian Dave Wondrich wholeheartedly believes that regardless of the Margarita’s true origin, it was West Coast bartender and influencer John Durlesser that became the first person in Los Angeles to serve and heavily popularize the Margarita at the widely-known establishment, Tail O’ The Cock.
This popular tipple is served shaken with ice and traditionally served on the rocks. Others are blended with ice and served frozen and some are just shaken with ice and served straight up into a coupe or cocktail glass. Although it has become “acceptable” to serve a Margarita in a wide variety of glass types including cocktail, wine or goblet, pint and yards and schooners, the drink is traditionally served in the eponymous Margarita glass, a stepped-diameter variant of a cocktail glass or champagne coupe. To help further this fad, Mexican cuisine has really taken off all over this country in the last 20-30 years, approximately. So now, venues ranging from small family-owned establishments to various sized national and international chains to celebrity-owned or -endorsed higher-end destinations can be found just about anywhere. By default, many of these establishments will also have agave-centric cocktail programs, some elevated and exquisitely done, some that are fun, whimsical and “interesting” and others that would get an “A” for effort! I mean, did you honestly in your lifetime ever think that Taco Bell would be serving alcohol? Not I!
One very fascinating argument is that traditionalists today would dispute that many of these riffs or varieties are truly not Margaritas. However, lime is no longer the only accepted flavor, and the specialists behind the bar have gotten creative mixing exotic and fresh fruits, different types of citrus, fresh and dried herbs, infused sugars and exotic salts to enhance both the presentation of the glass and the flavor of the cocktail. Where do my loyalties lie, you are probably wondering? I say, if the cocktail has an agave spirit base that can clearly come through in the cocktail, an acid component and a sugar component to balance it out, then I am okay still calling the riff a “something” Margarita.
After all, my go-to cocktail aside from a delicious Margarita or Whiskey Sour, is an Old Fashioned. I have more variations of the Old Fashioned than a wheel of Swiss cheese has holes—all delicious, of course! The DNA that I will use for my riffs is a libation with 2 ounces of an oak-aged spirit at the helm (whisk(e)y, rum, tequila or brandy), two generous pieces of citrus peel for muddling and discarding (grapefruit, varying orange or varying lemon), ¼-½ ounce of a sweetener (uniquely created flavored syrup with either sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, etc.) and 2-3 generous dashes of bitters (brand and flavor of choice). Of course, at this point I would list this variation as a “Tequila Old Fashioned,” “Rum Old Fashioned,” etc. My point is that if you stay true to the DNA of that original classic, then it’s acceptable to use its name in your creation.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that it’s safe to assume that most of us do not need a National Holiday as an excuse to libate! To me, I have a profound appreciation of the Margarita’s history and rise in popularity. This can be said for the plethora of other libations that came about long before all of us! With all this said, this February 22nd, let’s all raise a glass with our favorite Margarita or riff of it and let’s all toast to National Margarita Day! Til’ next month, friends…