Why the Margarita Is the Perfect Cocktail

Zach DeSart/Offset
Zach DeSart/Offset

Margaritas are what you pour for life’s happiest moments, as evidenced by 3.4 million #margarita tags on Instagram, that song, and the fact that Matthew McConaughey, perhaps the only man who makes Will Smith look grumpy, has his own recipe (it’s alright, alright, alright). This simple concoction of tequila, lime, agave and orange liqueur has stolen our hearts.  Whether you like yours frozen, on the rocks, salt, or no salt, sweet or spicy, the margarita is a big, inclusive tent -- with a giant umbrella sticking out of it. So we wrote this love letter to its sheer perfection.

Zach DeSart/Offset

It’s democratic

The margarita looks and feels oh-so-right whether you’re in a tuxedo or a bathing suit, sipping from a dainty glass or slurping from a giant plastic cup. Wherever your margarita typically falls on the drink’s cultural and economic spectrum, consider the following: Manhattan’s London hotel mixed the most expensive margarita, at $1200 a glass, this year. The outrageously expensive secret ingredient was a limited-edition Patron, of which only 500 bottles were made. And back in sippy cup territory, the margarita was the natural choice for the world’s largest cocktail -- 10,499 gallons to be precise -- concocted in a 25-foot tall blender at the 2012 California state fair and sold at $10 a pop.

It was born of perseverance

Like any good cocktail, the margarita has several people who lay claim to pouring the very first one. But one of the most accepted of several creation myths encompasses hope and perseverance in the face of a serious adversity: an alcohol allergy. The story is that Carlos “Denny” Herrara mixed up the first margarita for a Ziegfeld girl in his Tijuana restaurant in 1938, after she claimed to be allergic to all hard liquor but tequila. Figuring a straight-up tequila shot wasn’t exactly first-class service, he went the extra mile and invented the way more sippable version (and hopefully got at least 20% gratuity).

And now it’s literally America’s favorite

With stars aligned and blenders churning, the margarita quickly ascended to America’s cocktail of choice. According to Nielsen, it’s the go-to drink for 60% of Americans, and Brown-Forman, one of the largest spirit corporations in the world, claims that Americans collectively drink 185,000 margs every hour. We consume 80 percent of all exported tequila, and that’s done mostly by sipping margaritas, because in Mexico most enjoy their tequila neat. In fact, we almost drank the place dry of margaritas during a boom in the early 2000s; a country-wide tequila shortage forced one desperate NYC bartender to make a “rum rita.” For shame.

It has its own goddess

Tequila is made from the agave plant, which takes between six and 10 years to fully grow and harvest, and rewards farmers’ unwavering patience by dying after one shot. (Compare that to grapevines and whiskey grains, which are harvested annually and repeatedly.) Tequila is so regulated that it can only be distilled from a specific type of agave (blue Weber) in only five Mexican states. The precious agave is so central to Mexican culture that there is even an Aztec goddess dedicated to its nectar (ie: tequila): Mayahuel. Tequila is basically her gift to mankind, so pay homage properly the next time you sip on a marg.

The glass is no accident

The margarita glass is almost as iconic as the margarita itself, thanks to it being used as a vessel for so many different cocktails. But, there’s a few reasons why it may be shaped in a way that’s almost as large as your face: American cocktail drinkers needed a bigger glass than the champagne coup to house a margarita, thanks to all the ice involved. (And by ice, we mean that we just wanted bigger margaritas.)

It balances four of the five human tastes

A human taste bud can identify five different tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami -- a Japanese term for meaty/savory named by the Japanese chemist who discovered it. The margarita nails four of those five: the salty rim of the glass, the sweetness of the agave, the bitterness of the tequila, and the sourness of the limes. And besides adding that salty/sweet complexity, the salt rim has a balancing effect: According to the Institute of Medicine, sodium-containing compounds neutralize bitter tastes on the tongue. So when you take a sip of a margarita with salt, you cut the bitterness of the lime and tequila, while heightening the sweetness and sourness. That citrus flavor from the lime also helps neutralize bitterness, thanks to its high acidity.

It can be deceptively simple or ridiculously complex

A classic margarita is made with three things: tequila, lime juice, and agave. Normally, you’ll also throw in some orange liqueur, like triple sec or Cointreau. That super simple recipe creates lots of scope for variations, like the jalapeno margarita (which will actually help cool you down in hot weather), or sweeter takes with fresh berries and herbs. Mezcal, another liquor distilled from agave, has a smoky flavor and is also used in marg variations. Or, you can try a Cadillac, which is a margarita topped with a floated shot of Grand Mariner. That original margarita recipe is most likely a variation on the “tequila daisy” cocktail, which involved citrus, a sweetener, and tequila, and became popular after the end of Prohibition. Spanish for “daisy” is, you guessed it, “margarita.”

It perfectly pairs with your food

The marg is one of the most food-friendly cocktails out there, and especially when it comes to Tex-Mex. The icy body helps cool down the spiciness, while the acidity compliments fattier foods like meats and cheeses. That salty rim also adds some more depth to the salt in your food. Now you know why you always want a marg with your tacos.

It’s in the Smithsonian, kind of

If we could trace the frozen margarita boom back to one man, it would be Mariano Martinez, a Dallas restaurateur who, after having a terrible opening night at his Tex Mex joint in 1971, decided to up the ante. Martinez, inspired by the Slurpee machine at the 711, souped up an ice cream machine and tweaked his father’s margarita recipe until frozen margaritas emerged. Restaurants all over the country caught on quickly, but Martinez finally got the credit he deserves for “Frozen or on the rocks?” in 2005, when the Smithsonian acquired his original margarita machine.