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The Search for La Señorita Margarita

July 17, 2012 By: Robert Plotkin


There is a thin line between fact and fiction, a line that is often obscured with the passage of time. Such is the case surrounding the origin of the Margarita, which occurred somewhere during a fifteen year span between the mid-1930s and the late ‘40s. Some versions of how the Margarita originated state the place of origin as the United States, others Mexico. Weeding through the conflicting accounts of how the drink originated quickly turned into a fascinating “who done it” for me.

Most of the accounts of the drink’s origin have been published in various newspaper and magazine articles. In each case, the writer portrayed a particular version of the event, citing a sincere and seemingly credible source. However, considering the extraordinary success of the cocktail, there is more than ample motivation for someone to claim he or she formulated the original Margarita. Fame is a heady motivator. How then do we separate fact from fiction?

From the beginning, I presumed it was likely that more than one account of how the Margarita originated could be true. The events could even be separated by a number of years. As a result, each person’s claim as the cocktail’s originator may seem to have legitimacy.

I decided that a set of criteria must first be established before pronouncing a person as the originator of the Margarita. First, the credibility of each story weighs heavily on who witnessed the event. It’s a fact of life. When someone in the public eye, for instance a movie star or hotel tycoon, talks about a cocktail, people take notice and things start to happen. That’s how a cocktail becomes part of the American lexicon.

Second, its creation must have started a chain of events. Simply creating the drink and calling it a Margarita is insufficient. For instance, if one of the first people to sample the drink was hotel mogul Nicky Hilton and he was so impressed that he began featuring the Margarita at the Acapulco Hilton, that type of exposure could have been the catalyst to propel the drink along its path toward cultural prominence. I lend this type of cause and effect relationship tremendous credibility.

My little investigation did turn up two interesting facts about the original Margarita. The consensus among the stories is that the original recipe contained tequila and Cointreau. Likewise, most versions specify that the drink be made with a base of fresh lime juice rather than lemon juice.

As for the “who done it” part, I’ve looked at the evidence and have reached a verdict. Let’s see if you agree.

 

The Cast of Characters

Margarita Sames — San Antonio native Margarita Sames was a self-described socialite who, along with her husband Bill, owned a villa near the Flamingo Hotel in Acapulco, Mexico. The year was 1948 and times were good. For the rich and famous, Acapulco was an irresistible playground.

The Sames lived in Acapulco for part of the year. There they developed a close circle of friends, affectionately dubbed the “Team.” The cadre consisted of Fred MacMurray, Lana Turner, Nicky Hilton, next door neighbor John Wayne, Joseph Drown, owner of the Hotel Bel-Air, and restaurateur Shelton McHenrie, owner of the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Los Angeles.

Margarita Sames had an effervescent personality and disarming smile. She was a social magnet and the unofficial leader of the group. The Sames’ house was the setting for many wild parties, raucous affairs that sometimes lasted days on end.

Shortly before Christmas 1948, Margarita Sames was challenged by several ranking members of the team to devise a new and exciting cocktail, something to break up their regimen of beer and Bloody Marys. Her initial attempts were loudly and unanimously rejected.

As the story goes, undaunted, she mixed together tequila and Cointreau with fresh lime juice. Having grown up in France, Sames was familiar with Cointreau, and after spending years vacationing in Mexico, she had developed an appreciation for its native spirit, tequila.

She tried several different formulations, then she hit on what she thought was the perfect blend — one part Cointreau, three parts tequila and one part lime juice. Knowing that most people drank tequila preceded by a lick of salt, she chose to garnish her cocktail with a rim of salt.

Her friends sipped heartily and the approval was overwhelming. At first, the concoction was called simply “The Drink” or “Margarita’s Drink.” One day, Bill Sames brought home a set of glasses with the name Margarita etched in them. From that day on, the drink was referred to as the “Margarita.”

Her emissaries would go to restaurants and bars, tell the bartenders about the Margarita and order a few rounds. Soon it was a specialty at the Acapulco Airport. Nicky Hilton began promoting the cocktail at the bars in the popular Acapulco Hilton, as did Joe Drown at the Hotel Bel-Aire.

One account has the Margarita originating at the fashionable Tail o’ the Cock restaurant near Los Angeles. Owned by team member and Acapulco veteran Shelton McHenrie, the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant may likely have been where many Americans first sampled Margarita’s drink.

 

Carlos Herrera — In the mid- to late-30’s, many Americans would make their escape by driving across the border to dine and cavort at Rancho La Gloria, a popular restaurant & lounge located at Rosarita Beach, just south of Tijuana. The restaurant opened in 1935 and was owned and operated by Carlos Herrera. Rancho La Gloria was a favorite haunt of actor/musician Phil Harris, singer Alice Faye and their Hollywood friends.

One of the regulars at Rancho La Gloria was showgirl and part-time actress Marjorie King. As the story goes, she was allergic to alcohol, except for tequila, a spirit she unfortunately disliked. Carlos ventured behind the bar and decided to mix a jigger of tequila with lemon juice and Cointreau. He served the cocktail in a glass rimmed with salt. She adored the drink and Herrera named the concoction in her honor, the Margarita.

The drink thrived at Rancho La Gloria and solidified Herrera’s place in local history as the originator of Mexico’s most famous cocktail. Carlos Herrera died in 1992 at the age of 90.

 

Francisco “Pancho” Morales — In July 1942, Pancho Morales was a bartender at Tommy’s Place, an El Paso tavern located near Fort Bliss, Texas. One day a woman sauntered into this popular G.I. bar and ordered a drink named the Magnolia. According to the story, Morales knew only that the cocktail contained Cointreau and could not recall the recipe’s other ingredients. So, like any great bartender, he improvised.

Morales added tequila and lime juice to the Cointreau. The woman knew immediately the concoction was no Magnolia, but found the cocktail superb nonetheless. When asked to name his increasingly popular specialty, Morales stuck with the floral-theme and dubbed the cocktail, the “Daisy,” which in Spanish translates to the “Margarita.”

Danny Negrete — In 1936, Danny Negrete was the manager of the Garci Crespo Hotel, in Puebla, Mexico. Danny’s girlfriend was a beautiful woman named Margarita. Her favorite drink consisted of a lick of table salt, a shot of tequila and a squeeze of fresh lime. However, she was self-conscious about dipping her fingers into the table salt bowl.

One night Negrete concocted a special drink for his girlfriend, one that would alleviate the need for her to continually dip her fingers in salt. He mixed tequila, Cointreau and lime juice, and served the drink with a rim of salt. She loved the drink, as did the others. Negrete suggests the rest is history.

 

Johnny Durlesser and Vernon Underwood — During the mid-50’s, few restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area were more popular than the Tail o’ the Cock located on La Cienega Boulevard in the midst of restaurant row. The restaurant’s lounge was nearly always jammed with the well-heeled and Hollywood luminaries. The bartending staff was top-notch and capably led by head bartender Johnny Durlesser.

Vernon Underwood was the president of Young’s Market Company, a liquor distributorship. The company had successfully negotiated for the rights to distribute Jose Cuervo tequila. Sometime in 1955, Underwood was shocked to learn that the Tail o’ the Cock Restaurant was ordering on average five cases of the tequila per week. Tequila was still a fledgling spirit in the United States at the time, so ordering five cases a week was an unheard of. Underwood decided to investigate personally.

What he found was Durlesser had concocted a special drink for a lovely starlet named Margarita. The drink was made with tequila, Cointreau and lime juice served in a cocktail glass rimmed with salt. The Margarita, as it was called, was an immediate success.

Underwood seized the opportunity and began running full-page advertisements in national magazines featuring a portrait of the woman with the slogan, “Margarita, more than a girl’s name.”

Other theories exist. The earliest version claims the Margarita originated at the clubhouse bar of the Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana. The unknown bartender is said to have created the Margarita around 1930. Another story suggests the drink originated in Palm Springs shortly after World War II. Yet a third contends Doña Bertha, proprietor of Bertita’s Bar in Taxo, Mexico, devised the first Margarita at her bar sometime in the early 1930s.

 

“Your Honor, We The Jury Find...”

To be fair, there are those who contend that the Margarita is simply an evolutionary variation of the classic cocktail, the Sidecar. Their contention is based on the fact the Sidecar preceded the Margarita, and that the two recipes are strikingly similar.

The Sidecar was created at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris during World War I. It is made with cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice, then shaken with ice and served straight up in a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with sugar. Substitute the cognac with tequila, the lemon juice for lime juice, replace the rim of sugar with salt and you’ve got a Margarita.

So which story is true? Each sounds plausible, certainly credible enough for cocktail party conversation. Proof in this case is nearly non-existent, the evidence largely hearsay. Selecting just one of these stories as the bona fide account of how the Margarita originated is challenging and certainly open for debate. However, this is not an exercise for the faint hearted. History demands a decision.

That said, I believe the strongest case can be made for Margarita Sames. At the onset, I said our litmus test of legitimacy consisted of several criteria and the Margarita Sames’ narrative more than meets these measures of legitimacy.

The drink’s inauguration was well attended by highly credible, highly influential people. The event is said to have taken place in December 1948, which is the time frame we’re looking for. More important, Sames’ creation started a chain of events that likely fueled the Margarita’s colonization.

Then there’s the link between Margarita Sames and Tail o’ the Cock owner Shelton McHenrie. The restaurant is often credited with being the birthplace of the Margarita. It’s plausible that McHenrie told Johnny Durlesser about the Margarita, who may have over time embellished or reformulated the recipe and called it his own.

The last piece of circumstantial evidence is Margarita Sames’ French background. Cointreau is considered a French national treasure, found in nearly every household. Sames would naturally be familiar with Cointreau and have a bottle on-hand. I wasn’t as inclined to believe the Cointreau-connection with most of the other stories.

I did find the Carlos Herrera story convincing. There’s every reason to believe that a drink made with tequila, Cointreau and lime juice, named the Margarita was a specialty of the house at the Rancho La Gloria restaurant during the late 1930s. However, other than the word of mouth, there’s no evidence suggesting how the Herrera concoction sparked an international phenomenon.

Based on the information at-hand, I the jury find for Margarita Sames. Now that that’s settled, perhaps we should adjourn to the lounge and order up a few rounds....especially if you’re buying.


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