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Spirits

How the margarita got its name

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In one form or another, the margarita is the most popular alcoholic drink in the U.S. (iStock)

There is nothing better in summer than sitting outside with a cold margarita – or as Jimmy Buffet might say, wasting away in Margaritaville.

But while it seems the potent combination of tequila, triple sec and lime has always been with us, there was a time before the margarita had its name.

And much like the drink today, with its classic style or frozen variations, there is much debate about the real story of the margarita.

What’s in a Name?

The only thing that is sure in the history of the margarita is that, "there is no fact,” Dominic Alcocer, the director Olmeca Altos and Tequila Avión at alcohol producer Pernod Ricard says.  “That's the fun part, that's the myth.“

Like many drinks, the margarita at least two histories: one that tells the history of the name and the other of the ingredients. 

“Everyone has a different theory and everyone is right and wrong.”

But what’s known for sure it that the margarita’s ingredients have been sipped in some form or another for at least a century.

Chantal Martineau, author of How to Gringos Stole Tequila, points out that she “found an old cocktail book from 1937 with a recipe for a drink called a picador. It was exactly the same thing as a margarita.”

Alcocer says that around the same time, the margarita began to be called by its current name and notes that all of the origin stories of the drink date back “to just before the World War Two era.”

One popular story attributes its creation to actress Rita Hayworth, who in the 1940s was doing an extended theater engagement in Tijuana.

“The actress was evidently somewhat of a barfly and was fond of tequila,” says Tad Carducci, one of the authors of The Tippling Brothers: A Lime and a Shaker.

“The bartender was fond of the actress and named his concoction after her.” Hayworth’s real name? Margarita Carmen Cansino. Legend has it that when she came back to California she shared the drink and its popularity grew.

But another more plausible story is that the margarita grew out of a popular concoction called The Daisy, typically made with brandy. There’s a tale that another Tijuana bartender in the 1930’s swapped the brandy for tequila.

“The result was so tasty that the customer ordered another,” says Martineau. “The drink was christened a tequila daisy––and daisy in Spanish is 'margarita.’”

There is yet another story of a German diplomat’s daughter named Marguerite who had the drink named after her.

Lacy Hawkins, of Brooklyn’s Clover Club, says that “everyone has a different theory and everyone is right and wrong.”

The Margarita Boom

The margarita—as we know it today—earned a place in popular culture by the 1950’s when Esquire magazine made it its ‘Drink of the Month”.

Tequila sales grew gradually and by the time Jimmy Buffet’s song Margaritaville came out in 1977, the drink was everywhere.

“Soon, the margarita was a mainstay of Tex-Mex restaurants, then spread beyond that to become synonymous with spring break debauchery,” Martineau notes.

It is also hard to pinpoint why the margarita went from a simple cocktail to a frozen drink phenomenon.

Hawkins says that the popularity of the margarita coincided with a growth of blended drinks in the 1970’s when the U.S. had a “technological boom where people could have electronics in their home and bars.”

But firmly placing it as America’s most ordered cocktail, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), is the thirst for tequila in the U.S.

DISCUS says that tequila sales went from $962 million in 2003 to $2 billion in 2013.

Reclaiming the True Margarita

A whopping 30 percent of margaritas ordered in restaurants are flavored, according to DISCUS.

And companies continue to capitalize on the popularity of the margarita by creating new variations.

“Brands keep releasing alco-pops that trade on that popularity and mixers that are supposed to be the easier or lower calorie way to a margarita. It’s not authentic,” Martineau says. ”But it’s so heavily marketed that it’s taken on a life of its own. So now, a lot of people think that’s what a margarita is.”

While this is bad news for the purists who see the only way to drink a margarita is on the rocks with a rim of salt –no blender required, Alcocer thinks that these trends are leading to a new evolution of the drink.

“It used to be just maybe a party drink or a boozy brunch drink or frozen, but now on top of all those uses now there are mezcal mint and jasmine margaritas. And so that is something that people are starting to experiment with.”

It’s unclear if it will it still be called a margarita years from now.  But for time being, be it on the rocks, frozen or smelling like jasmine-- a drink by any other name would taste as sweet.