Cocktails With MAD MEN: The Margarita

It's never too late to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a good, classic Margarita. Let Bill Norris tell you all about it.

"He drinks--maybe beer, in which case his personality becomes a trifle better integrated; maybe wine, which helps his personality somewhat more; maybe hard liquor like whiskey or rum, whereupon he may become markedly integrated; or maybe, if he is fortunate, tequila in the form of the tequila daisy, which expands his personality in a uniquely effective manner."

--The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, Abner Peddiwell, 1939.

As of yet, it’s impossible to find a reference to a Margarita in the halls of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, an omission that seems glaring because the cocktail was certainly well known by at least the mid-1950s and would nicely serve as a character divide between the older generation and the young, between the buttoned down, crisp suit drinkers of whiskey and the batik clad, paisley tie new generation, unafraid of Mexican spirits and a burst of lime.

But this weekend we saw Cinco De Mayo, and hordes of people hit downtown bars and house parties, and consumed dreadful neon green slushies or sour mix laden atrocities masquerading as Margaritas. The time is ripe for a look at the most popular cocktail in the United States, one that is so simple to make, so satisfying when it is right, and so, so bad when it is wrong.

CREATION MYTH NO. 1

Margaret "Margarita" Sames, a socialite from Texas, creates the Margarita at a Hollywood star laden event for a Christmas party at her Acapulco vacation home in 1948. The rich and famous grab a hold of the drink, bring it back North, and voila.

AN EXTREMELY BRIEF LESSON IN LINGUSTICS

For the non-Spanish speakers amongst us, the word “Margarita,” translated into English, means simply, “Daisy.” This is extremely important.

CREATION MYTH NO. 2

Pancho Moralez, behind the bar at Tommy’s Place in Juarez, Mexico on July 4, 1942, cooked up the Margarita by mistake when a customer ordered a Magnolia, a drink he didn’t know, except that it contained Cointreau. It was so well liked it spread like wild fire throughout Juarez, crossing into El Paso and then beyond. Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, where they make a very fine Margarita indeed (though without the traditional orange liqueur), might be helping to keep this canard alive.

A BRIEF WORD ABOUT TEQUILA FOR MARGARITAS

Tequila as a category is vastly misunderstood, and there is a lot to discuss on the subject. But, for our purposes, here are some guidelines:

1) Do not skimp on your tequila, but don’t go overboard. Choose a nice highland blanco for your margaritas, and you’ll be pleased. Highland tequilas tend to have a fruitier flavor then their lowland brethren and add a nice depth of flavor when mixed with orange liqueur and lime. Siembra Azul is a great choice that won’t break the bank. Be wary of tequila that is remarkably inexpensive.

2) Always look for 100% Blue Agave product. Inferior tequilas without this designation are called Mixtos, the best known being Jose Cuervo Gold, and they are usually only 51% tequila. They are also crap.

3) There is no need to use an anejo tequila for your Margaritas. It’s a waste of quality spirit and the wood flavors tend not to meld well with the rest of the drink. Save the anejo for sipping.

4) Some like a reposado in a Margarita, and that can be very pleasing indeed, particularly if you’re using an orange liqueur with a Cognac base like Grand Mariner.

CREATION MYTH NO. 3

In 1936, Danny Negrete of the Garci Crespo Hotel in Puebla, México created the Margarita in honor of either his girlfriend who liked salt in her drinks or for his sister Margarita’s wedding. Negrete went on to later work at the Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, another place that claims to be the birthplace of the Margarita. The race track though, might just be close to the truth.

A WORD ON ORANGE LIQUEUR

Pick a good one, and you have several choices. Almost all of the original or prototype recipes for the Margarita feature Cointreau, which, once upon a time, was the first liqueur labeled “Triple Sec” in the United States. When inferior products began using the Triple Sec designation, Cointreau dropped it from its label. Combier is also quite nice, and often a better value than Cointreau.

Both Combier and Cointreau share some characteristics. They start with a neutral spirit base, macerated with sun dried peels from Curacao oranges. They are 80 proof, the higher alcohol content helping to balance out the sweetness of the liqueur. Other versions of this product include the broad category of Curacao liqueurs, though not the blue kind. Provided a Curacao comes from the islands and carries a hefty proof, it should work out all right. In Texas, Paula's Texas Orange is a nice, fresh tasting alternative.

Avoid cheap triple sec at all costs. It is vile, full of artificial flavors, and too low in alcohol to properly balance your Margarita.

Some argue for the use of Cognac based orange liqueurs like Royal Combier or Grand Marnier in a Margarita, but purists will argue against them. If you like the flavor, go for it, though the purists might be on to something here.

THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES

By the mid-1870s, the Daisy was a common cocktail throughout the American drinking landscape. It its original configuration, it was a mixture whiskey, gin, rum, or most commonly, brandy
with lemon juice, a bit of sugar and a bit of orange cordial. Generally, it was served up and charged with the smallest splash of soda water.

Over time, the Daisy evolved, in some hands, into a taller drink, over ice, with a bit of grenadine to add a different sweetness, various kinds of liqueurs depending on spirit, and a host of garnishes. By the time of prohibition in the United States, both types of Daisy were widely known, and widely consumed.

Something else happened in the 1920s: Americans began to travel to Mexico more frequently. After Prohibition really took hold, those travels only increased, as Americans sought out easy access to alcohol.

Things Mexico has in ready supply: Limes and Tequila. Things less common in Mexico: Lemons and Brandy. So, what is our Sporting Type to do if he travels to the Agua Caliente Race Track in Tijuana to drink and gamble? Why, he can order the house cocktail there, “A Sunrise Tequila,” (Tequila, Lime, Grenadine, and Crème De Cassis) which would be recognizable as the fancier type of Daisy. Or he could just order the by now popular “Tequila Daisy,” which pops up in travelers accounts from the early 1930s as a mixture of Tequila, Lime Juice and Orange Liqueur. En Español, “The Tequila Daisy” would be ordered as “La Margarita del Tequila.” One can assume that was quickly shortened to La Margarita, and linguistics trump legends every time.

A LITTLE BIT ABOUT LIMES

The most common lime variety available in the United States is the Persian Lime. Persian Limesare believed to be a hybrid of the Mexican (aka Key) Lime and the Citron, a nearly juiceless, bitter citrus native to Persia. The Persian Lime has a thick rind, few if any seeds, and a longer shelf life than the Mexican Lime. All limes turn yellow as they ripen, and the yellower the peel, the sweeter the juice inside.

Persian Limes rose to prominence in the United States after a hurricane wiped out Florida’s Mexican Lime orchards in 1926, but it is safe to assume that most of the early recipes made with lime juice were made with Mexican Limes.

Mexican Limes are smaller than Persian Limes, with more seeds, a thinner rind, and, generally, more juice per weight than the Persian variety. Mexican limes are usually slightly higher in acid, and the juice has a more pronounced bouquet. Squeezing them can be tedious due to their size, but the flavor makes it worth your time.

Limes vary widely in the acid levels, with the common pH coming in at 2.0 - 2.35, but depending on ripeness and variety, the pH can be as low as 1 or as high as 4. Always taste your lime juice before mixing, and always squeeze fresh. Fresh juice can begin to oxidize, altering its flavor, within 20-30 minutes of squeezing. For a big group, go ahead and squeeze ahead of time, but if you’re just mixing up a handful of Margaritas, get a good lime squeezer and give your wrist a work out.

THINGS THAT HAVE NO PLACE NEAR A MARGARITA

Anything that comes out of a soda gun. Anything that comes out of a bottle, jug, can or jar that is not 100% Agave Tequila or a nice orange liqueur. A blender. Anything labeled “mix.” Orange juice. Lemon Juice. Anything that contains the words, “Sweet and Sour.” Chili Peppers. A slushie machine.

Finally, and this is largely an Austin thing, though its pernicious influence is spreading, olives and olive brine. During the “-Tini” craze of the 1990s, some bartender or bar owner in Austin came up with the idea of the “Mexican Martini,” basically a Margarita served up in a cocktail glass, garnished with olives. Often they are served in a little cobbler shaker as doubles, so your second drink sits diluting in the ice while you drink the first. Sometimes they include a bit of olive brine. Always, they are an abomination.

THINGS THAT CAN POSSIBLY BELONG IN A MARGARITA

A non-alcoholic sweetener. For some palates the classic recipes will be slightly too tart. Go ahead and add a bar spoon or two of simple syrup or, better, agave nectar cut down with water in a 2-1 ratio. Better still, play with the ratio of orange liqueur to lime juice to find a balance that suits you.

Salt. This is a bone of contention. Many Margarita purists will argue against the salt. But it can’t be denied that salt in judicious quantities and tequila have a nice affinity for one another.

Compromise—rim half the glass with salt by rubbing the outside rim of the glass with a lime wedge and rolling it in salt. You don’t want salt on the inside of the glass, just a nice crust on the outside. If you’re throwing a party, you can rim the glasses ahead of time and store them in the freezer, leaving you time to juice your limes to order.

A HANDFUL OF RECIPES

The Classic Margarita:

2 oz. Siembra Azul Blanco
¾ oz. Combier Liqueur
¾ oz. Fresh Lime Juice
¼ oz. agave nectar, cut down in a 2-1 ratio with water (optional)

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass or over ice into a rocks glass. Salted rim and lime garnish are optional. If you are lucky enough to live in Texas, cut the Tequila back to 1 and 3/4 oz, use Paula’s Texas Orange for the liqueur, and forego the agave nectar.

Tommy’s Margarita
By Julio Bermejo, Tommy’s Restaurant, San Francisco, California

2 oz. Reposado Tequila (7 Leguas would be a great choice here, but Julio doesn’t specify.)
1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
½ oz. agave nectar

Moisten the outer rim of a rocks glass with the lime wedge and coat lightly with salt. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the tequila, lime juice and agave nectar, shake well and strain over fresh ice into the salted rocks glass.

Anvil’s Margarita (Houston, TX)
No idea. The exact recipe is a secret held only by bar owner Bobby Heugel. What I do know is that it’s one of the best I’ve ever had, and any cocktail geek worth her salted rim should travel to Houston to try Anvil anyway.

Enjoy

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