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A Forgotten Tequila Classic Returns

This blend of tequila, Curaçao and dry vermouth—and Trader Vic’s 1970s tropical spin on it—is having a moment.

matador cocktail

When I spotted the Matador on the menu at Harry’s, a Wall Street stalwart recently reborn as a steak and cocktail spot, I knew that the lesser-known tequila cocktail was finally getting its due.

But what I didn’t know is that there are two very different takes on the Matador—both of them getting their due. The first version, consisting of equal parts tequila, orange Curaçao and French vermouth, appears in the Café Royal Cocktail Book, written by British bartender William J. Tarling, published in London in 1937 by the then-fledgling United Kingdom Bartenders Guild. Although Tarling doesn’t offer any explanation for the origin of the cocktail, the name is an obvious nod to the tequila component. 

“There is evidence of the first practical shipment of tequila arriving in the U.K. and being distributed around London bars in the early to mid-1930s,” says London-based bartender Paul Bradley. Newly smitten with access to tequila, the Café Royal book showcases the spirit in several cocktails, many of them paying tribute to Mexico’s bullfighting traditions, with names like Toreador, Picador, Bullfighter and, of course, the Matador.

The second variation owes a debt to Trader Vic, who placed a version in the 1972 edition of his Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. The “Tequila Matador” sees one ounce of tequila shaken with two ounces of pineapple juice and the “juice of 1/2 lime” as well as shaved ice, before it’s strained into a cocktail glass. A Frozen Matador also appears in the 1971 Playboy’s Host & Bar Book with similar proportions, blended with crushed ice and poured into a “deep-saucer champagne glass.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the drink originated, though the pineapple-spiked version was floating around long before Victor Bergeron published it. “The Matador was mostly made known through a Jose Cuervo booklet,” says cocktail historian Greg Boehm. The tequila brand circulated those booklets as early as 1962, and in the 1970s, he adds, the Matador Tequila brand also had variations floating around. But it’s clear that it’s the Trader Vic legacy that has helped the drink survive obscurity.

The Trader Vic version gets a remix at La Contenta Oeste, where sotol takes the lead in place of tequila, but the pineapple remains, kicked up with cilantro and a habanero tincture. The Clam also has a version that splits the base between tequila and amontillado sherry, plus pineapple, lime and grapefruit bitters. And in his new book, Tequila Beyond Sunrise, London-based agave specialist Jesse Estes adds green Chartreuse and a grind of pink peppercorns for an herbal twist.

At the newly re-opened Harry’s in New York’s Financial District, beverage director Ivan Mitankin riffs on the Café Royal version of the drink. His Matador is built around reposado tequila—“you need a wood-aged tequila for the cocktail to come alive,” he notes—and dials the other components way down. The end result drinks like a tequila-based Manhattan, with an icy sidecar on the side to replenish.

With so many worthy variations making their way onto cocktail menus, this unexpected tequila classic—even if it’s essentially two classics in one—is finally emerging from obscurity to assume its rightful spot alongside the Margarita, the Mexican Firing Squad and the Rosita. 

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