It’s 1989 at Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s acclaimed restaurant on LA’s Sunset Strip. Seated on one side of the room: Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. On the other: Joan Collins. The chef himself is shuttling duck sausage pizza from the kitchen and the servers are pushing the restaurant’s signature Margarita, mixed with a new high-end tequila, called Patrón, created by John Paul DeJoria—that shampoo guy—and a friend of Puck’s.
“Befitting its luxury,” says the server, “we call it the Cadillac Margarita.”
That’s one origin story for the cocktail, which has become codified as a combination of high-end tequila with Grand Marnier subbed in for triple sec. It’s one of only two Margarita variants (the other being the Tommy’s Margarita) to nudge its way into the cocktail canon. You could, in fact, say the Cadillac Margarita introduced the idea of luxury (or “luxury”) to this humble cocktail, creating a template for the kinds of lavish Margaritas that remain standards at chain restaurants today.
As with many cocktails of the era, the drink’s true origin story is a murky matter of debate and, in this case, some corporate jockeying.
As early as 1968, Carrousel’s Cantina in Cincinnati served a Gold Cadillac Margarita, specs unknown. By 1975, the Sandpainter Room in downtown Phoenix served a Golden Cadillac—though, according to the Arizona Republic, it was merely a Margarita without salt on the rim. By 1979, the Cadillac Margarita had appeared by name in Playboy Bartender’s Guide, but its premiumization came by way of cranberry liqueur, not Grand Marnier.
Many believe that the Cadillac Margarita we know today originated with the legendary Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. When the bar opened a location across the border, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1974, it became a sensation. In short order, there were Cadillac Bars in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. By 1986, an Alamo-themed, graffiti-covered branch of the bar had opened on West 21st Street in Manhattan. The New York Times notes that guests enjoyed fajitas and Slammer shots (tequila and 7UP), but it makes no mention of a Cadillac Margarita in either this story, or the press to follow throughout the year. Likewise, the press surrounding the previously opened locations makes no mention of the drink.
While the Cadillac Bar chain may have served plenty of Margaritas in the early 1980s—including a claim to creating the world’s largest Margarita, at 15,000 gallons—I could find little evidence to confirm that the Cadillac Margarita originated there. (I made contact with Cadillac Bar, but they were unable to answer my questions about the drink.)
There is, however, no doubt about who popularized the drink, and solidified its name in the annals of cocktail history. That honor belongs to Larry Cano, a former fighter pilot in World War II who took over a humble tiki bar called Bali Hai in Encino, California, when its owner died in 1954. He turned the space into a restaurant and renamed it El Torito.
“There weren’t too many Mexican restaurants in the San Fernando Valley at the time,” Cano told OC Weekly in 2011. “I needed a business to make my name, and I figured making a nice Mexican restaurant would do it.”
El Torito’s mole, chile colorado, housemade tostada shells and tableside guacamole became quick hits in suburbia. By the late 1970s, Cano had opened additional locations in Toluca Lake, Newport Beach, Mission Viejo, Marina del Rey, Rancho Mirage, Hollywood and beyond.
The chain’s Margarita, too, was ascendant. By 1983, El Torito’s popular Mission Viejo location was serving 1,385 per day. An El Torito menu from the same year, dug up on eBay, features a Margarita Especial with Sauza gold tequila, triple sec and Grand Marnier. This looks a lot like the Cadillac Margarita, though one could hardly label it a luxury, with its use of mixto tequila.
Despite selling 7 million Margaritas in 1984, by 1985 the chain aimed to tweak the drink for its growing “yuppie clientele,” as the Los Angeles Times called them, who were keen to spend their money on “distinctly upscale” fare. The new-and-improved Margarita called for Cuervo 1800 (“The top of the line!”), Sunkist sweet-and-sour mix and Bols triple sec, shaken 20 times tableside and accompanied with a shot of Grand Marnier. (El Torito’s company lore claims Cano named it in honor of the Cadillac Bar, but no further details around that story were made available.)
By 1987, the Montreal Gazette had formally published the recipe, crediting it specifically to the El Torito branch in Woodland Hills, California. For the first time, that recipe instructed that the Grand Marnier shot be “floated” atop the cocktail. The drink became so popular that the chain began selling cheeky jackets emblazoned with “Test Driver Cadillac Margarita.”
Around this time, the Cadillac Margarita seems to jump out of the chain and into other bars and restaurants, appearing in the Midwest at a Mexican restaurant just outside of South Bend, Indiana, and a Mexican restaurant (owned by a Greek family) in Madison, Wisconsin. El Torito had seemingly lost possession of the Cadillac Margarita as its own, despite the fact they had trademarked the name by at least 1991, the first instance I could find of “™” attending the recipe on their menus.
By the mid-1990s, many American restaurant chains were featuring their own top-shelf Margaritas. On The Border offered the Meltdown Margarita, made with Cuervo Gold, Chambord and Cointreau. TGI Friday’s had The Best Friday’s Margarita, essentially a mashup of today’s Cadillac and Tommy’s Margaritas, with both Grand Marnier and agave syrup. Applebee’s offered the Mucho Margarita, with Cabo Wabo tequila and Grand Marnier. Ruby Tuesday bluntly served the Top-Shelf Margarita, also made with a float of Grand Marnier.
In 1996, the Cadillac Bar chain was acquired by Landry’s restaurant group, who endeavored to claim (or reclaim, as the case may be) the drink. Landry’s currently holds the trademark to the Cadillac Margarita name, and their menus proudly proclaim: “We invented this world-famous cocktail!”
Amid the cocktail revival of the late 1990s and early aughts, and the elevation of tequila to a sipping spirit, the Cadillac Margarita, and its chain restaurant derivatives, became something of an out-joke.
“If you see someone making one of these ‘Cadillac’ margaritas with aged tequila, all they’re doing is gopping it up so you can’t taste the tequila anymore,” restaurateur Laurence Kretchmer told the Houston Chronicle in 2007. By the next year, Jon Bonné wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle of top area bartenders Carlos Yturria and Dominic Venegas “fend[ing] off requests for 1980s relics like the Cadillac margarita” when they were hired to overhaul the cocktail menu at casual dining chain Pacific Catch.
From here, the Margarita forks into two different modern cocktails. Sophisticated cocktail bars and restaurants could be identified by their stripped-down Margaritas, made with 100 percent agave tequila, fresh lime juice and agave syrup (that is, the Tommy’s Margarita), while the chains continued to dress up the drink with modifiers to signify luxury.
The latter path is perhaps best exemplified by the Chili’s Presidente Margarita, hardly a canon drink, but now the bestselling Margarita, if not cocktail, in the entire world, moving over 20 million units per year. Though it eschews Grand Marnier, its baroque build opts for Sauza Conmemorativo Tequila, Patrón Citrónge, E&J Brandy and a proprietary sweet-and-sour mix that is even said to include egg white to encourage foaming when shaken.
It makes the Cadillac Margarita look downright minimalist.