Margarita Man

The 50th anniversary of the margarita was the Fourth of July, 1992, according to Francisco “Pancho” Morales’s calculations. Pancho should know. He invented the drink–no matter what anyone else says. Claims to the origin of the margarita are as common as Elvis sightings. Some stories say that the margarita was created by a bartender at the Tail o’ the Cock in Los Angeles in the early fifties. This margarita was named for a customer (a Margaret Whatsherface, of course). The bartender used the macho-man tequila José Cuervo, and when the word spread, the drink became for Heublein the financial equivalent of an endless night on the town. Anyway, that’s how the advertising copywriters tell it.

Another yarn holds that a San Antonio socialite named Mrs. William Sames devised the drink in 1948 when she hastily combined tequila and Cointreau to serve to her wealthy friends. Her family called it “the drink” until her husband gave it his wife’s first name–you got it–Margarita. Wrong again.

A lot of people probably think that singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffet first concocted the margarita because of all the publicity he gave the drink while wasting away in his fictional Margaritaville. But Jimmy was merely the musical pitchman for a lively libation that was created because of miscommunication and bartender hustle. And it was all Pancho Morales’ fault.

It was American Independence Day, 1942. The heat was sweltering, and the scene was Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Not that you couldn’t celebrate the independence of America in Mexico. During those days, just over the bridge in Juárez’s busiest commercial district, you could celebrate anything you wanted.

Pancho was tending bar at Tommy’s Place, a favorite hangout for GIs from Fort Bliss. A lady walked in, sat at the bar, and ordered a magnolia. The only thing Pancho knew about a magnolia was that it had lemon or lime in it and some kind of liquor. So he did what any good bartender would do–he winged it and used the most popular liquor served in Juárez: tequila.

With a single taste, the woman, who knew a magnolia was made of gin, cream, lemon juice, and grenadine, realized that the drink was an imposter, but liked it anyway because Pancho had loaded it up with enough tequila to make anyone smile. When she asked what the new drink was called, Pancho’s brain was thinking flowers and “m”s, and had leaped from magnolia to margarita–Spanish for daisy.

And so mixology history was made, and Pancho later immortalized the drink when he taught at the bartender’s school in Juárez before immigrating to El Paso in 1974. In the 1990s, Pancho, then a retired milk truck driver, still received calls from reporters all over the country who ask him questions about the invention of the margarita. What about the bartender in Los Angeles?

“A kook,” replies Pancho.

How about that Margarita in San Antonio?

“I don’t even want to know her.”

What about the claims of the management of La Florida, another popular Juárez bar, that they created the drink?

“They’re kooks, too.”

Pancho used to say that today’s margaritas are breaches of trust “All these guys, they put bananas in the margaritas. They put in cactus, onions, and pink color and serve it in champagne glasses. And they use too much salt. Kooks, all of them.”

His recipe is simple and given in the language of a true barkeep. Here it is.

Juice of 1/2 lime

2 parts white tequila

1 part Cointreau

Now, here’s the translation. Squeeze about an ounce of lime juice from a Mexican limón (not a Persian lime) into a shaker glass filled with chunks (not cubes) of ice (never shaved). Take the squeezed limón and run it around the rim of a cocktail glass. Put the glass on a towel, sprinkle it lightly with salt, and then shake off all the excess salt. Now, allowing for the juice already in the glass, and any ice that may have melted to contribute to the 4-ounce final tally of liquid, the remainder of the formula requires enough tequila (please, a great tequila like Herradura) and Cointreau (never Triple Sec), two parts to one, to equal exactly 4 ounces of drink to be shaken, strained, and poured off into a 4-ounce cocktail glass. This takes some skill, but it’s not brain surgery.

“The two parts doesn’t mean jiggers and it doesn’t mean bottles,” warns Pancho. “I’ve seen this all mixed up.”

Adjust the recipe following to your taste.

The Perfect Margarita

The Perfect Margarita. Photo by Wes Naman.

Contrary to popular belief, the perfect margarita is made not with Triple Sec but with Cointreau. Also necessary for the perfect margarita are a great tequila such as Herradura and Mexican limes (also called Key limes), rather than Persian limes.

1/2 Mexican lime (or more to taste)

Coarse salt

1 1/2 ounces white tequila

3/4 ounce Cointreau

Squeeze the lime into a shaker full of ice cubes. Rub the lime around the lip of an iced cocktail glass and dip the lip into the coarse salt in a saucer. Add the tequila and Cointreau, shake well, and strain into the cocktail glass.

Yield: 1 serving

Variations: The margarita can also be served on the rocks, or blended with ice to make a frozen margarita.

For more food history and recipes on the subjects of Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, just click on the image below.

AboutDave Dewitt

Dave is known in the media as "The Pope of Peppers" because of the 36 books he's written on chile peppers and spicy food around the world. He's also co-producer of the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show and editor and publisher of the Fiery Foods & Barbecue SuperSite at His latest book, with chile breeder Dr. Paul Bosland, is The Complete Chile Pepper Book.

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