A latecomer to the canon of classic cocktails, the Margarita was quick to embed itself in American culture, and has been rising steadily in popularity ever since.
As with nearly every historical recipe, however, accounts differ when it comes to the precise origins of the drink. One common claim asserts that it was a Mexican restaurateur based south of Tijuana that first mixed the spirituous combination of tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur in the 1930s; a rival narrative attributes the invention to a 1940s Acapulco socialite. By all accounts, however, it was, without question, a south-of-the-border original—a twist on the daisy (the Spanish word for “daisy” is, after all, margarita)—that found favor with an American audience not long after Repeal. By December 1953, when Esquire magazine named the Margarita their cocktail of the month, the drink had become cemented into popular consciousness.
There were a number of conspiring factors that sustained the Margarita as a barroom staple in the decades to follow. The introduction of Sauza and Cuervo tequilas to the American market in the 1950s, for example, made for a widely available base spirit, and a subsequent boom in Mexican resort tourism in the ‘60s bolstered the drink as a perennial favorite. But, as Leslie Pariseau observed in 2016, it wasn’t until 1971—when Mariano Martinez, a Dallas-based Mexican restaurateur, converted a soft-serve ice cream machine into a frozen Margarita dispenser—that the simple tequila sour earned its reputation as an American classic.
Today, however, bartenders by and large are returning to the basic three-ingredient formula, relying on an influx of high-quality spirits and liqueurs. Oftentimes, too, they’re building on the template with fresh additions like agave, winter citrus and watermelon, for a slew of 21st-century spins on Mexico’s tequila daisy.
Here, three classics and their modern interpretations.
Traditionally, the Margarita has been built on tequila—something that earned the drink a pop-culture boost sometime in the 1970s from the Eagles (“Tequila Sunrise”), the Rolling Stones (the Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour of ’72) and, of course, Jimmy Buffet (“Margaritaville”). Today, however, mezcal is widely considered a fine alternative, with the Beachfire Margarita offering a split base, and the Employees Only’s Mezcal Margarita relying solely on the smokier agave spirit. The switch is equally acceptable in nontraditional riffs, too, like the Blood Orange Margarita, which calls for either spirit and rounds it all out with winter citrus and rosemary-infused Cointreau.
Recorded in Charles H. Baker’s Gentleman’s Companion, Volume II: Jigger, Beaker and Flask, the Mexican Firing Squad has roots at La Cucaracha Bar in Mexico City circa 1937. An especially dry version of the Mexican daisy, the formula here swaps out orange liqueur in favor of grenadine, which sweetens the drink only slightly. The Queen of the Underworld offers something of a modern take; it dials back on the lime and calls on savory pomegranate shrub for sweetness and complexity.
Back in the early 1990s, Julio Bermejo concocted a namesake modern classic at his family’s restaurant, omitting orange liqueur from the house Margarita in favor of the more natural, honeyed flavor of agave syrup. Some of today’s best riffs on the cocktail are similarly inspired by this West Coast-style of bartending, which makes a point to incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients. The El Vato Swizzle, for example, is a watermelon-flavored cross between the Margarita and the icy Caribbean classic. The Mexican Razor Blade, on the other hand, is a simple but bold take on the original three-ingredient formula. With the fresh addition of muddled cucumber plus a piquín chile garnish, it’s a testament to the Margarita’s seemingly limitless adaptability.