The True History of the Margarita Cocktail

By Michele Samal Kinnon

Celebrating National Tequila Day and Uncovering the Origins of this Iconic Mexican Drink.

Imagine a cocktail so iconic that its origin story is as blended and intriguing as the drink itself. Enter the Margarita, a concoction that has danced its way across borders, from the sun-drenched beaches of Mexico and the bars of Tijuana to the upscale eateries of New York, Paris and beyond, becoming a global sensation. 

Classic margarita on a bar with a twist of lime

This classic cocktail, with its perfect balance of tart, sweet, and salty flavors, has not only captivated the taste buds of millions but also woven itself into the fabric of Mexican culture and beyond.

There are many exiting drinks to sample when you are in Mexico, but the margarita is without a doubt the most famous.

The Margarita, a sometimes salty symphony of tequila, lime juice, and orange liqueur, is more than just a drink; it’s a cultural phenomenon. Its name evokes images of leisurely afternoons and lively evenings, of celebrations and spirited company of friends and strangers alike. 

But where did this beloved cocktail come from? Who first thought to mix these ingredients together, and how did it rise to become a giant in the world of cocktails?

A glass of margarita with salt and lime on the rim, sat on a stone coaster.

Unraveling the History of the Margarita Cocktail

Before we dive into the heart of our Margarita mystery, let’s pause for a moment at the crossroads of history and legend. The origins of the Margarita cocktail are shrouded in a mix of tales and testimonies, each adding its own twist to the story of this beloved drink. 

From the vibrant streets of Tijuana to the luxurious shores of Acapulco, the genesis stories of the Margarita tell tales of creativity, chance, and the serendipitous spirit of invention. These are the four most commonly told tales of the cocktail we know as the Margarita.

A Tale of Tequila and Temptation: The Herrera Hypothesis

The first origin story telling the tale of the Margarita is set in the sun-drenched expanses of Tijuana, Mexico. The tale unfolds in the year 1938 at Rancho La Gloria, where Carlos “Danny” Herrera mixed innovation with necessity.

Imagine Marjorie King, a renowned dancer with a peculiar aversion to all spirits save for tequila, stepping into Herrera’s establishment. In a bid to please her palate and perhaps his own penchant for creativity, Herrera is said to have concocted a drink that was both a revelation and a revolution. 

A man pouring a margarita from a shaker into a salt rimmed glass. The history of the margarita

Lime for zest, salt for edge, and tequila for spirit, crowned with the sweetness of orange liqueur, gave birth to a concoction that would transcend its humble beginnings. This story, wrapped in the warmth of Mexican sunsets, presents the Margarita not just as a drink but as a serendipitous masterpiece.

Francisco “Pancho” Morales and a Twist of Fate

Fast forward to 1942, in the bustling ambiance of Tommy’s Place in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where Francisco “Pancho” Morales wielded his bartending prowess. The plot thickens with a misheard request, turning a request for a Magnolia cocktail into the creation of the Margarita. The story tells that Morales, in a moment of inspired improvisation, reached for tequila instead of the intended spirits, naming his creation after the Spanish word for daisy, “margarita.” 

A man adding a slice of lime to the salt rimmed glass of margarita.

This twist of fate suggests that sometimes, the best inventions are born not from meticulous planning but from the joyous accidents of life. Morales’ story adds a layer of intrigue and whimsy to the Margarita’s mystique, reminding us of the serendipity that often accompanies the art of mixology.

The Socialite’s Soirée: Margarita Sames and the Acapulco Connection

The scene of this origin story is set in the glamorous 1940s. In Acapulco, Mexico a playground for the elite, Margarita Sames, a socialite with a flair for hosting, claims her stake in cocktail history. In the midst of a lavish party, with the Mexican coast as her backdrop, Sames decided to experiment. Her concoction? A blend of tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau, served with a salted rim, that quickly became the signature drink of her gatherings. 

Margarita cocktail
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Guests were enchanted, and word spread like wildfire. Sames’ claim adds a touch of elegance and exclusivity to the Margarita’s origins, painting a picture of a drink that’s as much at home in the hands of the glitterati as it is with the common folk.

The Daisy’s Transformation: A Cocktail Evolves

Beyond individual claims, the Margarita’s history might also be traced back to a broader cocktail evolution process—the transformation of the “Tequila Daisy.” This narrative posits that the Margarita is simply a modern iteration of the Daisy cocktail.

With tequila stepping in to replace brandy, the Margarita emerges as a vibrant variant, bridging cultures and tastes. This narrative speaks to the fluid nature of cocktail history, where drinks morph and merge over time, influenced by trends, tastes, and the timeless quest for something new under the sun.

Shaking Up the Scene: The Margarita’s Meteoric Rise

As the whispers of the Margarita’s origins swirled through the air, it was a moment of publication that catapulted this tequila treasure into the limelight. Picture the year 1953. At the time, Esquire Magazine was the arbiter of cool, the guide to the good life. In its pages, the Margarita made a grand entrance, not just as a recipe, but as an icon of sophistication and fun. 

Margarita with salt

This wasn’t merely a drink; it was a statement, served up with a lime wedge and a rim of salt, capturing the imagination of cocktail lovers everywhere. The publication marked a turning point, transforming the Margarita from a well-kept secret into a household name.

The Margarita as Marketing Gold

Enter Vern Underwood, a visionary in the liquor industry, whose knack for spotting trends turned his attention to this rising star. In the mid-1950s, Underwood observed an anomaly: a single restaurant, McHenry’s Tail o’ the Cock, was ordering tequila by the case, far outpacing its peers. The culprit? The Margarita. 

Underwood, seizing the moment, embarked on a mission to spread the word, championing the drink across the United States. His efforts weren’t just about selling tequila; they were about selling an experience, one that was exotic, yet accessible. Underwood’s push helped the Margarita pour from the borders of Mexico to the bars and homes of America, making it a staple of the cocktail scene.

National Margarita Day

But what’s a legend without its own day of celebration? National Margarita Day, observed every February 22nd, is more than just an excuse to indulge in this citrusy delight; it’s a homage to the cocktail’s enduring appeal and its role in shaping cocktail culture.

A frozen margarita in a salt rimmed glass on a table in front of the beach.

This day isn’t just marked by specials at your local bar or Mexican restaurant; it’s celebrated with fervor by enthusiasts and bartenders alike, each bringing their own twist to the classic recipe. More than just a clever marketing ploy, National Margarita Day underscores the drink’s transformation from a simple cocktail to a cultural phenomenon, a testament to its versatility and timeless charm.

The Art of the Margarita: Classic Roots and Modern Twists

At the heart of every Margarita lies a simple harmony of ingredients, a quartet that sings with the vibrant notes of Mexican culture and spirited innovation. The classic Margarita recipe is a testament to simplicity: tequila, the soul of the drink; lime juice, the zesty companion; orange liqueur, the sweet whisper; and salt, the finishing touch that elevates each sip into a symphony of flavors. 

Making a margarita

This blend, iconic and unassuming, has not only stood the test of time but has also served as a canvas for creativity, inviting mixologists and enthusiasts alike to add their own strokes of genius.

Moving from the classic to the contemporary, the Margarita reveals its versatility and adaptability. Modern variations of the recipe have embraced the bounty of the bar and the kitchen, introducing new ingredients and techniques while honoring the essence of the original. 

From the smoky allure of mezcal, replacing tequila for a deeper, earthier profile, to the infusion of fresh fruits and herbs, the Margarita has donned countless new identities, each reflecting the evolving palate of its admirers.

A margarita with a spicy rim and added sliced jalepenos.

The advent of spicy Margaritas, with jalapeños or habañeros, challenges the brave and the bold, while sweet renditions, featuring mango or strawberry, cater to those with a penchant for the luscious and the lush. The frozen Margarita, a slushy cousin of the classic, offers a refreshing escape from the heat, a poolside delight that has become a genre unto itself. And for the purists watching their waistlines, the skinny Margarita, with reduced sugar and fresh lime juice, promises the essence of the original without the guilt.

Whether you prefer your Margarita on the rocks, frozen, or with a modern twist, there’s really no wrong way to enjoy this iconic cocktail.

The Margarita: An Ambassador of Celebration and Culture

The Margarita, more than just a cocktail, has become a boozy ambassador for Mexican culture, transforming the way the world views and enjoys tequila. Its ascent from the bars of Mexico to the global stage has played a pivotal role in popularizing tequila outside its homeland, introducing the spirit’s versatile charm to an international audience. 

Two salt rimmed glasses with margatias.

This tequila-based concoction has not only elevated the profile of its main ingredient but has also become a symbol of leisure, celebration, and the art of good living around the world.

Tequila’s Triumph

Before the Margarita’s rise to fame, tequila was largely unknown beyond the borders of Mexico, often overshadowed by more widely consumed spirits. The Margarita changed all that, showcasing tequila’s unique flavor profile and versatility in a way that was accessible and appealing to a global audience. 

As the cocktail gained popularity, especially in the United States, it sparked a tequila renaissance, leading to an increased interest in and appreciation for premium tequilas and mezcal. This shift not only boosted the tequila industry but also encouraged a deeper exploration of Mexican culture and culinary traditions.

Shaping Cocktail Culture

The Margarita’s influence extends far beyond its ingredients, having a profound impact on cocktail culture itself. It has inspired countless variations and innovations, encouraging bartenders and enthusiasts to experiment with new flavors and techniques. The cocktail’s simplicity and adaptability have made it a staple in bars and homes worldwide, serving as a foundation for creativity and expression in mixology. 

Three flavors of margaritas being held by women.

The Margarita has also played a significant role in the resurgence of craft cocktail movements, where the emphasis on quality ingredients and artisanal methods has led to a renewed appreciation for classic cocktails and their histories.

A Symbol of Leisure and Celebration

Beyond its contributions to the world of spirits and mixology, the Margarita has become an enduring symbol of leisure and celebration. Its association with sunny beaches, festive gatherings, and moments of relaxation has imbued the cocktail with a sense of joy and escapism. 

The Margarita’s cultural impact is perhaps most visible in its ability to bring people together, transcending language and cultural barriers through the universal language of good taste. Whether served at a casual backyard barbecue or a sophisticated cocktail lounge, the Margarita represents a pause from the everyday, an invitation to savor the moment and celebrate life’s pleasures.

A couple raising margaritas in beach chairs in front of the ocean.

The Margarita is much more than a cocktail; it’s a cultural phenomenon that embodies the spirit of Mexico and the joy of shared experiences. Its journey from a simple mix of tequila, lime, and salt to a global icon is a testament to its timeless appeal and its ability to adapt and thrive in a changing world. As we raise our glasses to the Margarita, we celebrate not just a drink, but a rich tapestry of history, culture, and the art of celebration that it represents.

Celebrating the Margarita: A Toast to Tradition and Innovation

The Margarita is an iconic cocktail and much more than a mere blend of tequila, lime, and salt. Its journey from the bars of Mexico to the global stage is a testament to its enduring appeal and its unique ability to adapt to the tastes and trends of each new generation. 

Margarita cocktail on a bar with limes
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Its rise to fame is not just about the drink itself but about the moments it has created: from sunsets on the beach to laughter-filled nights out, the Margarita has become a symbol of joy and camaraderie. 

On the rocks, frozen or straight up…rimmed with salt, sugar or even spicy tajin…no matter how it is made, the Margarita is something that almost everyone loves.

So, here’s to the Margarita, a drink that has shaken up the cocktail world and continues to bring a splash of Mexican culture to our lives.

About the author

Michele Samal Kinnon

Despite the strong reservations of family and friends, in 2004 I moved from the United States to Mexico with my young family. Since then, I have made the Riviera Maya my home. I have raised two remarkable children here. I have celebrated amazing successes, made countless mistakes, and in the process, fallen in love with this beautiful country.