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The Mysterious Origins Of America’s Favorite Cocktail, The Margarita


For decades, spirits historians have debated dozens of different stories detailing the origin of the margarita. But one story might trump them all. (Photo: Pexels/Los Muertos Crew)

Who doesn’t love a good margarita?

The margarita has long reigned as the most popular cocktail in the United States; a whopping 56% of bar-goers say it’s their go-to drink of choice.

Though it’s easy to imagine that the iconic three-part mix of tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice has simply existed since the dawn of time, the margarita has a surprisingly contentious origin story, one that varies wildly depending on who you ask.

Same Story, New Tricks

Interestingly, most variations of the margarita origin revolve around a similar set-up: a renowned bartender in the 1940s created the cocktail for a famous guest who fell in love with it at first sight.

The exact identity of the bartender and the celebrity guest is where things get murky.

In a popular telling, Hollywood socialite Margaret “Margarita” Sames served the drink at one of her famous Christmas parties in 1948. In attendance to behold the revolutionary cocktail was Hilton Hotel founder Nick Hilton, Hotel Bel-Air owner Joseph Drown, and actors John Wayne and Lana Turner.

Another rendition alleges that Santo Cruz, head bartender at the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas, created the cocktail for singer Peggy Lee in the same year.

Yet another telling would have you believe that Carlos Herrera, bartender at the Rancho La Gloria bar in Tijuana, created the margarita for actress and showgirl Marjorie King. As the story would have it, King was allergic to all hard liquor except tequila and hated drinking it straight. Once again, this story is dated 1948.

Another common variation of the folklore revolves around a woman named “Margarita” after whom the drink was named.

Bartender Enrique Bastate Gutierrez was said to have invented the cocktail in the early 1940s in honor of actress Rita Hayworth, whose birthname was Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino.

Similarly, Danny Negrete is said to have invented the cocktail as a wedding present for his future sister-in-law, Margarita, at a hotel in Puebla, Mexico.

The Rise of Panchos

One version of the story that has gained traction in recent years conforms to neither of these tropes.

In fact, this story contends that the usual hodge-podge of origin details was invented as a convenient myth by advertising executives.

In 1942, Francisco “Panchos” Morales was working as a bartender at Tommy’s Bar in Juarez, Mexico. A patron asked him for a Magnolia; a drink containing brandy, Cointreau and an egg yolk topped with Champagne.

Panchos only knew vaguely of the recipe, so he flubbed a version made with Cointreau and tequila instead. When she was served the drink, the patron immediately noticed that it wasn’t a Magnolia, to which Panchos replied, “Oh, oh, I thought you said Margarita.”

Texas Monthly did a deep-dive into this story back in 1974, one which included an interview with Francisco “Panchos” Morales himself.

In their article, Texas Monthly claims that tequila distributor Vern Underwood was having a difficult time pushing its exclusive distribution rights to Jose Cuervo in the United States. In the 1940s, tequila was said to have a kind of macho-man persona unpalatable to the average consumer.

One of the bars that Vern Underwood distributed to, The Tail O’ The Cock, suddenly had a new invention. Bartender Johnny Durlesser had been asked by a patron named Margaret “to duplicate a drink [she] had once tasted in Mexi­co.”

Supposedly, Cuervo marketing executives caught wind and started pushing the margarita as an opportunity to court new consumers, crediting Durlesser as its inventor.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Panchos’ rendition doesn’t account for the popularity of celebrity-centric origin stories, but it does refute the idea that the margarita was named after a woman.

But even that might be a misnomer. In perhaps the most confusing twist of all, Panchos actually married a woman named Margarita in 1956 — 14 years after he said he first invented and named the cocktail.

It’s difficult to tell what to make of this detail.

More likely than not, the decades-old margarita mystery will never be truly solved.

Until we get some riveting new detail or unearthed archeological find, we’ll just have to make do with the cocktail we know and love today.

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Pedro Wolfe is the managing editor of Tequila Raiders. With several years of experience writing for the New York Daily News and the Foothills Business Daily under his belt, Pedro aims to combine quality reviews and recipes with incisive articles on the cutting edge of the tequila world. Pedro has traveled to the heartland of the spirits industry in Tequila, Mexico, and has conducted interviews with agave spirits veterans throughout Mexico, South Africa and California. Through this diverse approach, Tequila Raiders aims to celebrate not only tequila but the rich tapestry of agave spirits that spans mezcal, raicilla, bacanora, pulque and so much more.