The Spicy Margarita Is the Drink of Our Times

Simultaneously safe, extreme, cultured and milquetoast, the classic gone piquant represents everything Americans want a modern drink to be.

The Margarita is a superb drink. It is not, however, a Mexican drink. Yes, most of the cocktail’s origin stories suggest the Margarita was created in northern Mexico in the first half of the 20th century. Yet, it is within the pervious borders of the United States alone that the drink reigns. We think the Margarita is Mexican but, instead, the Margarita is a zippy cipher for how the United States perceives Mexico and consumes its culture. These days, that simulacrum often arrives ringing with a peal of chile-pepper burn.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, drinkers that wearied of the classic Margarita’s fine-tuned balance of tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur began demanding spicy heat. Orange is nice; fire is better. “If it’s got jalapeño-infused tequila listed, it’s going to be our No. 1 seller,” says Ivy Mix, author of Spirits of Latin America and co-owner of the agave-centric Brooklyn bar Leyenda. Once, the standard guest request was “fruity, not too sweet”; now, it’s “spicy with tequila.”

But how and why and when did the United States populace leap from Cosmos to spicy Margs? I am no historian, but I figured if I asked the right people I might glean a sense of how this shift transpired. I started my research in the West.

In the early 2000s, Julio Bermejo, the owner of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco and creator of the Tommy’s Margarita, in which agave nectar supplants the drink’s traditional orange liqueur, started infusing blanco tequila with habanero peppers. These, after all, were the heady days of deep infusions and scented cocktails. (I remember one sceney San Francisco restaurant, Frisson, where essential oils were so common they practically dribbled themselves across the drink menu.) If a guest at Tommy’s drank four shots of habanero tequila, their name would be added to the bottle. Consumption as bravado. How very American.

Then, in 2005, a local bartender named David Nepove won a Gran Centenario competition at Tommy’s with his Sweet Heat cocktail. The drink featured muddled jalapeño with lime, Licor 43 and tequila. Jacques Bezuidenhout, a San Francisco–based bar consultant who ran in the same circles as Nepove and Bermejo, remembers putting the Sweet Heat on the opening menu of Tres Agaves, a sprawling Mexican restaurant and bar that opened the same year near what is now Oracle Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. “On the West Coast, our bartending style came up with access to the kitchen,” says Bezuidenhout, offering his theory as to why the city became awash with muddled jalapeños in the mid-2000s. Before long, a peach-chipotle drink joined the Sweet Heat on the Tres Agaves menu, and the bar started seasoning agave nectar with puréed jalapeños to scorch the Tommy’s Margarita with a pepper conflagration.

The same year, Bezuidenhout began working with the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, traveling the United States and implementing cocktail menus at the company’s hotels. “I started putting spicy tequila drinks on menus only when it made sense for the city,” he says. The first one he remembers introducing was the Southern Heat, with blanco tequila, Cointreau, cucumber and jalapeño, for Central 214 in Dallas. Texas was already primed for the heat.

“I want to say the food here caused the shift in people’s drinking,” says Rich Bailey, now a brand ambassador for Santa Teresa rum and a former bartender and assistant general manager at Johnny’s Gold Brick in Houston.

The inextricable culinary tie between the Lone Star State and Mexico ensured that, in time, every kind of bar and every kind of drinking demographic started swerving spicy. Bailey recalls guests’ chile heat–curiosity during his first days working at the Tex-Mex chain restaurant Pappasito’s Cantina, in 2010. Shortly after, the restaurant began serving a spicy peach Margarita; by 2014, “a full spice craze” had been ignited.

The highbrow cocktail scene was likewise influencing Houston drinkers from the top-tier down. One forceful impetus: the Pliny’s Tonic, a fiery take on the gin-based Southside cocktail, created in 2009 at legendary Houston cocktail bar Anvil. The cocktail became so popular that people would ask for it at other top Houston bars, including Johnny’s Gold Brick. “At first, I would get more calls for a Pliny’s than a spicy Margarita,” says Bailey. “People would ask what made the Pliny’s spicy, and we’d tell them about our serrano-and-habanero tincture. Eventually they started asking, ‘Well, can you make a spicy Margarita then?’”

Bartenders did. The spicy Margarita is now a near-requisite on cocktail menus across the country, even if it goes by other names, like For Old Times Sake, with apricot and green chile liqueur, at Maxine’s Tap Room in Fayetteville, Arkansas, or El Guayabero, with cayenne-agave syrup and guava marmalade, at Miami’s Café La Trova. Sometimes, it wears no disguise at all, as with the Spicy Margarita, hot with habanero shrub, at Grand Army in Brooklyn. Life can be deadening, and we all want to feel something, anything. Our drinks may as well be inciters, even as they are balms. A cat-o’-nine-tails wrapped around a fistful of Xanax.

“In the aughts, it was vodka-soda central,” says Mix of Leyenda. “The opposite of a vodka soda is jalapeño-infused tequila. It’s a sensation—not just taste.” She likens the allure of the punchy, spicy cocktail to “that Indian place in the East Village where you get your name on a plaque if you eat the spiciest level of vindaloo.”

In the second half of 2020, with Leyenda offering frozen Margaritas for takeout, Mix has seen a hockey-stick spike in requests to make the Margaritas even spicier. In response, she created a jalapeño tincture inspired by a similar creation from fellow Brooklyn bartender KJ Williams. “We sure didn’t have jalapeño tincture before COVID, let me tell you,” says Mix. “The drinks can never be hot enough right now.”

We make of our drinks what we need them to be, to codify our understanding of the world and our place in it. A spicy Margarita is likely more American a drink than even an ice-cold Bud. A spicy Margarita is safe, extreme, cultured and milquetoast.

While I was reporting this story, I mentioned it to my friend Allán, a Mexican American who, like me, lives in New Orleans. “I’d never heard of a spicy Margarita until someone offered me a habanero Margarita at Burning Man,” he told me. How perfect. We Americans love to absorb other people’s culture, make a muck of it, then reflect it back to them, thinking we understand it better than they who have lived it. I asked Allán if the guy slinging habanero Margaritas on the playa was white. “Obviously,” he replied.

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Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author and content and editorial consultant. He has worked in magazines, kitchens, newsletters, restaurants and a bunch of other environments he can’t remember right now. He has also been the editor in chief of both liquor.com and Tasting Table.