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How the Margarita Became Everyone's Favorite Cocktail

Its storied history will inspire you to stock up on tequila.

Associate Digital Food Editor
margarita
Photography by: Mikkel Vang

Who invented the most popular cocktail in America? The short answer is no one knows for sure. The margarita is not a traditional Mexican drink, and it seems to have as many origin stories as it does fans. One version places the conception in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1948, when Texas socialite Margaret “Margarita” Sames supposedly came up with it to impress her high-profile guests John Wayne, Lana Turner, and Conrad Hilton. Or perhaps the cocktail was named for jazz singer Peggy Lee (Peggy is a nickname for Margaret), who was served one at the Studio Lounge in Galveston, Texas in the 1940s.

 

Or it may have been an ordinary Margaret who sparked off the margarita craze—bartender John Durlesser claimed he invented the drink at Tail o’ the Cock in Los Angeles in 1936 for a customer with that same name. Another legend credits Tijuana restaurant owner Carlos Herrera with creating the margarita in 1938 for showgirl Marjorie King, who was allergic to all hard liquor except tequila and didn't like to drink it straight. Then there’s Francisco “Pancho” Morales, who insisted he concocted the first margarita in 1942 at a bar in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, making it up on the spot when an American customer requested a cocktail he wasn’t familiar with called the magnolia.

 

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Margaritas for a crowd
Photography by: Victoria Pearson

Cocktail historian David Wondrich has yet another theory in his book “Imbibe!”: the margarita may have descended from the daisy, a cocktail that goes back to the early 1870s. The original recipe called for whiskey, citrus juice, orange liqueur, and soda, but once tequila became the base spirit of choice for the drink in the 1930s and 1940s, it may have been referred to as a margarita, the Spanish word for daisy.

 

Whoever invented it, the margarita started gaining steam in the 1950s. A recipe featuring the standard tequila-lime-triple sec combo first ran in the December 1953 issue of Esquire magazine with the following description: “She’s from Mexico, Señores, and her name is the Margarita Cocktail—and she is lovely to look at, exciting and provocative.” The margarita became ubiquitous in the ensuing decades, appearing at Mexican restaurants then bars all over the country (no doubt spurred on by Jimmy Buffet’s 1977 hit “Margaritaville”).

frozen margarita
Photography by: Johnny Miller

People also began tinkering with the cocktail, blending it with ice and adding other fruits like strawberries. In 1971, Mariano Martinez introduced the world’s first frozen margarita machine at his restaurant Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine in Dallas. Inspired by the 7-Eleven Slurpee machine, he'd bought a soft-serve ice-cream machine and retrofitted it for his best-selling cocktail. The resulting slushy margaritas were a huge hit, and the original machine now sits in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

 

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These days you can find margaritas made every which way—straight up, on the rocks, frozen, rimmed with salt or sugar. They're available in every flavor imaginable: hibiscus, chile, watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, peach, pomegranate, cranberry, you name it, and that's just on our site! Our test kitchen has also transformed the cocktail into all kinds of desserts, from cheesecake and cupcakes to Italian ice and popsicles. We say start with the classic, then try the margarita in all its delicious incarnations.