Q&A with Ted Haigh: Origins of the Margarita
I had the great pleasure of sitting down with LA’s own Ted Haigh–one of the world’s leading cocktail historians. Our topic for the day: the Margarita–one of the most popular cocktails on earth.
Q&A with Ted Haigh
Origins: the Margarita
WP: as we know—the Margarita has more colorful purported originators than perhaps any other cocktail in history? What’s your favorite story as to the true origins of the Margarita?
TH: my favorite story and the one I believe to be true are two entirely different things. My favorite version is probably that of Santos Cruz, the head bartender at the historic Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas—who created the drink for Peggy (Margaret) Lee in 1948. But that’s only because I actually met him—in his nineties at the time—he was very soft-spoken and a perfect gentlemen. I know that a lot of people met Margarita Sames, as well.
WP: Margaret (Margarita) Sames, being the woman who supposedly created the drink at her home in Acapulco, Mexico, 1948.
TH: yes—during a Christmas party for guests, Nick Hilton (founder of the Hilton Hotel chain), Joseph Drown (owner of the Hotel Bel-Air), Shelton McHenry (owner of the Tail O’The Cock, in LA). And, friends who included Lana Turner and John Wayne who, of course went on to help evangelize the drink.
WP: how did the recipes of Cruz and Sames compare?
TH: Cruz called for equal portions tequila blanco, Cointreau and lime juice (modeled after the Sidecar). Sames was one part Cointreau, two parts tequila, one part lime (with a salt rim).
WP: so what do you believe to be true?
TH: that the original drink which would become the Margarita—the Picador—was invented in England around 1936, more than a decade earlier. The book which featured it—WJ Tarling’s the Café Royal Cocktail Book—was actually published in 1937. The Picador calls for ¼ fresh lime (or lemon) juice, ¼ Cointreau, ½ tequila—shaken. This is the basic Margarita recipe.
WP: in other words, the most famous agave-based cocktail in history was actually created in the UK—how were they even getting tequila?
TH: tequila seemed to get a bigger foothold in the UK than it did in the US—faster and earlier, that is. You began seeing tequila cocktails there long before they took hold in America. Hell, there were more than a dozen in Tarling’s 1937 book, alone.
WP: is it any surprise then that the serious bartenders in England, Scotland and Ireland are all going mad over mezcal—and have been for many years?
TH: No—they’re smart. Just as they were in the 1930s.
WP: I’ve heard conflicting stories—does cocktail historian David Wondrich have a different opinion about this?
TD: He wants to trace it back through its whole family line—and I do too. I’m just saying that the Picador is the first appearance of this Mexican drink; and that it’s really the first Margarita. Now, we can mention the Sidecar as being the daddy of the Margarita and, as Wondrich would say, the Brandy Daisy as its granddad, or (as I say) the Brandy Crusta as its granddad. We might actually even be able to come together on the matter if we presume that the Brandy Daisy came out before the Brandy Crusta—then maybe the Brandy Crusta was a variation of the Brandy Daisy. To me, the lineage to the Daisy is a little bit more tenuous; but to the Crusta it’s easy—I mean, you can draw a graph.
WP: is it possible that there was a Margarita zeitgeist? I mean, it’s hard to imagine that people weren’t mixing tequila, lime and Curaçao before and certainly during Prohibition in Tijuana, for example.
TH: ah, here we are in Caesar salad territory. That’s my point exactly—Tarling is among the people who could have afforded to actually fly on airplanes, as were the jet-setters of the day who bounced from LA to TJ to the UK. For all we know, it was an American bartender (living in England) who created the drink. What I find suspect is the people who claim to have invented it; but that might not be accurate either because things tend to happen when they’re ready to happen—technologically, sociologically.
WP: but given tequila (the national spirit of Mexico), lime (their traditional fruit) and the addition of a simple sweetening agent, can’t we assume that said recipe was concocted in or near Mexico?
TH: it’s at the sweetening agent where your argument starts to fall apart. Take, for example, the Daiquiri—every single ingredient was intrinsically Cuban. In the case of the Margarita, rationalizing begins at the Cointreau—sure, there were stars and jet-setters that could’ve brought it, but there is an absence of hard logic.
WP: So, all doubt begins with Cointreau?
TH: well, some used triple sec. It should be noted that Cointreau originally was a triple sec and that all subsequent triple secs were imitations of Cointreau. That is certain. Mexico then created a product called Controy—which tastes less like Cointreau and more like a good orange Curaçao, ironically. But either way, this concoction was sort of a celebration of an American’s nicely filtered version of that culture. Thereafter, the Margarita was a very Anglo drink—hardly indigenous—whether English or southern Californian.
WP: so, who really invented the Margarita?
TH: nobody will ever know.
WP: how do you like yours?
TH: think Santos Cruz: equal parts blanco tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice.
*For a similar piece, as featured in an online exclusive for Los Angeles Times Magazine, click here.