Our favourite summer cocktail offers the perfect canvas for artful variations

The Coconut and Mint Margarita from Monarca. Nora Hamade photo

The Margarita is a splash of happiness, the quintessential summer cocktail and one of the most popular drinks in the world. Whether you like it frozen or on the rocks, in a pre-dinner coupette, a plastic cup poolside or poured from a pitcher, it’s a classic that hits all the right notes with the bitterness of tequila, the tartness of fresh lime, the sweetness of orange liqueur and the salt, which heightens all the flavours. 

There are numerous origin stories of the sour cocktail, which takes its name from the Spanish word for daisy. 

Maybe it came from a bar in Juárez named Tommy’s Place, where in 1942 a female customer requested a Magnolia—brandy, Cointreau and an egg yolk, topped with Champagne. Francisco “Pancho” Morales could only recall the orange liqueur from the recipe and improvised from there. The drink became a hit. 

Or possibly it was created in 1938 by Tijuana’s Carlos “Danny” Herrera, owner of Rancho la Gloria, for Ziegfeld showgirl Marjorie King, who was allergic to all spirits except for tequila. He combined the ingredients of a shot into cocktail form and gave it the closest Spanish word to her name. 

Slushy Margs came much later, around 1971, when Texas restaurateur Mariano Martinez used a soft-serve ice cream machine to keep up with customer demand for the blended version of the drink. The Slurpee-style sipper went over like wildfire—and his equipment is now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The Spicy Tamarind Mezcal Margarita from La Mezcaleria. Ruben Nava Mendoza photo

Memories of Mexico

La Mezcaleria bartender Michelle Vizcaino, a native of Guadalajara, loves how the cocktail gives her so much room to play around with. Maybe it’s a watermelon-peppermint-ginger slushy with chipotle-infused mezcal or a simpler version with tropical fruit like pineapple or mango. Sometimes, she’ll incorporate other spirits, such as nocino liqueur (green walnut) or la pinta (pomegranate). 

The restaurant’s Spicy Tamarind Mezcal Margarita is a fan favourite, a liquid version of the spicy tamarind candy she grew up with. “The sweet and sour makes it a really easy-to-drink cocktail, and the taste of the agave spirit is present in a way that makes you want another round,” Vizcaino says. “The main components of a Margarita make it so easy to experiment with. There so many different notes you can find in various types of tequila and mezcal.”

She adds: “Experimenting with the type of rims is something that can create a whole a different experience. We love experimenting with traditional insect salts as well as dehydrated flowers and fruits. It makes it more fun and colourful.”

Mostly, Vizcaino enjoys seeing how a Margarita of any flavour can evoke the warmth of her homeland.  

“Working at the bar, it’s always nice to hear how a Margarita transports people to their memories of the perfect vacation in Mexico,” Vizcaino says. “It is always a joy to know that one drink reminds people of beautiful beaches and amazing food. There is nothing better than having people remember a happy memory and the good times my country has given them with just one drink.”

The Jalapeño Margarita from El Camino’s. Photo courtesy of El Camino’s

Taste of tequila

At El Camino’s, bar manager Mikey Maclntyre enjoys the drink’s possibilities, as vast as an endless stretch of sandy beach. 

“I love the simplicity of a classic Marg,” he says. “It’s because they are so simple that Margaritas are open to almost unlimited variations. Using different tequilas can change the flavour profile in subtle ways or we can use infusions, flavoured syrups or different liqueurs to make completely different versions. We recently just hosted a Margarita competition for Altos tequila, and the innovation was incredible: everything from a bright blue Marg to a milk-washed Marg with loads of herbs and spices.”

El Camino’s signature Margarita is modelled after the one created in the 1990s at Tommy’s Mexican restaurant in San Francisco; it’s sweetened strictly with agave nectar, eliminating the conventional notes of orange from triple sec. “It makes the drink even more tequila forward,” MacIntyre says. “It’s also served on the rocks instead of in a coupe. I find that ice allows us to use less sweetener so the tequila and lime can really shine.”

The choice of tequila can clearly make all the difference in a Margarita’s flavour profile.

“A typical lowland blanco tequila—I’m thinking Fortaleza or Herradura—will showcase herbaceous flavours and could be paired with a dish containing salsa verde,” MacIntyre says. “A sweeter highland reposado tequila like Tapatío or Don Julio reposado could easily go with a dish containing pineapple, like carne asada tacos. But generally, any kind of Mexican or Central American food can pair well with a Margarita. What grows together goes together.” 

La Taqueria’s Hibiscus Margarita. Ruben Nava Mendoza photo

Traditions made new

In a way, the Margarita is Mexican culture in a glass. “The history of our classic Margarita comes from many years of traditions that are found in this cocktail—thousands of agave plants,” says Antonio Desfassiaux of La Taqueria, which at any given time has more than six styles of Margaritas available, including lavender, hibiscus (sweet, tart, floral), picante and mezcal. “Its simplicity makes it an incredible way to enjoy tequila. Almost any flavour makes it a perfect accompaniment to some delicious birria, carnitas tacos or, in some cases, with some exquisite green or red chicken enchiladas.”

La Taqueria’s Shacked Margarita has 1.5 oz of white tequila, 1.5 oz fresh lemon juice, sugar to taste and 0.5 oz of triple sec, shaken and served in a short glass with ice. “White tequila is recommended since it has the least odours and flavours, while a reposado or aged tequila is recommended to drink straight,” Desfassiaux says. 

Veracruz native Francisco Higareda, chef of Monarca and Ophelia, is fascinated by the Margarita’s history and adores the drink’s freshness and versatility. “The Margarita easily adopts many flavours: fresh, sweet fruit; spice; and different types of peppers,” Higareda says. 

New to the Monarca menu just in time for summer is a Coconut and Mint Margarita. 

“We were looking for something that was similar to a Piña Colada, but not as heavy,” Higareda says. “So we basically made a Margarita version of the Piña Colada. We would pair this with tuna tostada or anything spicy and seafood. It’s also great on its own. It’s perfect for when you’re sitting on the patio.” 

Summertime sipping can’t come soon enough. 

Make these variations on the classic Margarita:

Coconut and Mint Margarita

Spicy Tamarind Mezcal Margarita

Jalapeño Margarita

Hibiscus Margarita

—by YVR Barfly

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