The history of the margarita and where to find Hong Kong’s best

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 6:13pm

Nobody knows for sure how long the margarita has been around, or even the identity of the lady it was named after.

The most popular theory is that it was created in the late 1930s, near Tijuana in Mexico, by the owner of a restaurant called Rancho La Gloria.

Carlos “Danny” Herrera claimed he made it specially for a customer named Marjorie King, a B-movie actress and former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. She was alleged to be allergic to most alcoholic drinks – with the curious exception of tequila.

King didn’t like to drink the spirit straight, however, which set Herrera a challenge. After some experimentation, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, he came up with the tequila, triple sec, citrus, salt and ice combination that is popular all over the world today. He called it a margarita because he thought the name was the closest Spanish equivalent to Marjorie.

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The LA Times story gives Herrera’s recollection of the date of the margarita’s invention as the late 1940s. However, he was about 90 years old when he gave the interview, and may have been confused on that point.

We know that the use of the name “margarita” in Jose Cuervo’s tequila advertisements began in the mid-1940s, which suggests the drink had already been around for some time.

Herrera’s story also cites fresh lemon juice as an original ingredient, now largely superseded by lime, as stipulated by the current official International Bartenders Association margarita recipe.

There are other claimants for the roles of both the margarita’s inventor and its dedicatee. Among the former are several bartenders and restaurateurs, and a socialite called Margarita Sames.

Among the latter are singer Peggy Lee (whose middle name was Margaret), another showgirl called Rita de la Rosa, and Rita Hayworth.

Sames may well have helped popularise the drink, but was probably appropriating the credit for an already established recipe given a new name – as Herrera may also have been.

William J. Tarling’s Café Royal Cocktail Book, published in 1937, contains an identical formula to the margarita in a drink called a picador.

Furthermore, as several cocktail historians have pointed out, all that was necessary to come up with the margarita formula was to use tequila in place of the brandy in the Brandy Daisy cocktail that appears in Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide of 1876. Margarita is Spanish for Daisy, so there may be no mysterious lady at all.

“There are a few stories,” says Imelda Ng of the Four Seasons Hotel’s Blue Bar, who is a fan of margaritas whatever the recipe’s origin. A bartender who has worked in Australia and Hong Kong since 2009, Ng is a frequent cocktail competition contender, and recently won the Hong Kong round of the Diplomático World Tournament’s Asia finals.

She thinks that margaritas are often made too sweet; she prefers to stress the tequila and ease up on the triple sec (generally Cointreau).

“The secrets of a great margarita are high quality tequila, a chilled glass, fresh lime juice and good quality sea salt which is not overpowering,” she says.

“At the Blue Bar we make two margaritas, one to the original recipe – which is Jose Cuervo silver tequila, simple syrup, Cointreau and lime juice, shaken hard and double strained. It’s twisted a bit for Hong Kong’s taste, so it’s a little less sweet.”

If you are ordering from the Timeless Classics section of the Blue Bar menu, however, you get a margarita made with a slightly bigger shot of Purasangre Reposado tequila.

“The tequila is barrel-matured in French oak, so it’s rich and a little bit sweet and spicy. It’s 100 per cent agave. This version of the margarita has less syrup and more lime juice. It has 60ml of tequila – normally I’d use 45ml or 50ml – and we put in a little more syrup and a little less Cointreau,” Ng says.

“Some customers request a Blue Margarita which we make with Blue Curacao, but that’s quite sweet.”

Also called the Moonlight Margarita and the Electric Margarita, the blue-tinted version of the drink is only one of numerous variations available in Hong Kong.

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At Quinary in Central, you could try a Tommy’s Margarita, originally served at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco which styles itself the “world’s best tequila bar”. Created by owner Julio Bermejo, the son of Tommy’s founder, it is served in a rocks glass and made with premium Don Julio Tequila, substituting agave nectar for simple syrup.

At Zuma, also in Central, you could try a Japanese Margarita, made with Olmeca Blanco tequila, shochu, yuzu kosho, and yuzu instead of lime. Any number of Mexican restaurants have their own interpretations, including, of course, different fruit variants, and the frozen margarita.

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We do at least know who first decided that margaritas should be sold in bulk as slush. The first frozen margarita machine was made in 1971 in Dallas, Texas, by Mariano Martinez, who adapted an ice cream machine for the purpose. You can see it at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

Blue Bar, Lobby Level, Four Seasons Hotel, 8 Finance Street, Central, tel: 3196 8830

56-58 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2851 3223

Zuma, 5/F and 6/F The Landmark, 15 Queen’s Road Central, Central, tel: 3657 6388