How the Margarita Got Its Name
by Jeanine Lee Kitchel
Jeanine Lee Kitchel is an ex-pat living in Puerto Morelos, Mexico. Her nonfiction travel adventure, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, can be found at amazon.com or from bookstores everywhere. She contributes to The Miami Herald, Planeta.com, Sac-Be News, and writes for Fodor’s Travel Guides
Was there a Margarita behind the Margarita? Of course. But contrary to what you may have imagined, the woman was not a Mexican beauty but instead a fledgling Hollywood starlet. And though other Margarita namesakes have surfaced and vied for this distinction, I’m sure you’ll agree our starlet is the real McCoy.
Years ago I heard a eulogy on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” for a man named Carlos “Danny” Herrera, who’d passed away at the age of 90 in San Diego. Although his name rang no bells, he left a legacy known far and wide. He had created one of the world’s most famous cocktails – the Margarita.
On a wistful note in recognition of Herrera’s passing, host Noah Adams unraveled the tale of how Herrera came to invent the drink that is synonymous with Mexico. It was 1992 and San Diego was paying homage to Herrera, who had been born and raised in Mexico City at the turn of the century, but had moved to San Diego five years before his death.
According to the San Diego Tribune, Herrera had worked his way across Mexico as a young man, settling just south of Tijuana in 1929. Herrera and his wife built their house in the rugged countryside of Baja California. They added a bar in their home to entertain friends.
More and more people kept dropping in so they decided to open for business and a few years later, they added a restaurant. Then came ten hotel rooms and a swimming pool along with a booming clientele from across the border. Rosarita Beach just down the road was becoming a fashionable getaway for the Hollywood crowd and Carlos’ place was an easy pit stop for a quick refreshment on the dusty Baja road.
By 1935 traffic was heavy. Carlos was a friendly guy with a quick wit and his bar-restaurant, named Rancho La Gloria after his daughter, attracted stars and socialites who became regulars at Rancho La Gloria before continuing south to Rosarita Beach or Ensenada.
Among the bar’s clientele was an actress named Marjorie King. While all her friends were taking advantage of Carlos’ talents as bartender, Ms. King did not partake in the afternoon revelry. She had an unusual problem. She was allergic, so the tale went, to all alcohol except tequila.
What luck, Carlos cajoled. Tequila is the national drink of Mexico, he said, as he poured the actress a straight shot of the clear, strong liquid, brought out a plate of fresh limes, and set a salt shaker beside her on the bar. Marjorie wrinkled her pretty nose, gave Carlos a “not so fast” look, and informed him she hated the taste of it.
What was a girl to do? In those wild and reckless days just after Prohibition began, how could one stand idly by and not join in the fun? Herrera was determined to put an end to Ms. King’s misery. He went to work.
Herrera decided he would create the ultimate concoction for the attractive actress. He started experimenting and came up with a winner – three parts of white tequila, two parts triple sec, one part fresh lime juice, a pinch of sugar. As the day was hot, he added shaved ice and blended the mixture with a hand shaker. Ms. King liked the looks of the drink immediately, Herrera reportedly said.
But how to serve it? Marjorie was no ordinary gal, and Herrera wanted to pay tribute to her sense of style. Something special was needed. He grabbed a champagne glass, dipped its rim in lemon juice and twirled it in a bowl of salt. Reshaking the contents, he then poured the frothy liquid into the champagne glass and presented it to the starlet.
The result – the famous Margarita, shaken, not stirred. And what a coincidence. The drink included all the ingredients of a traditional tequila shooter—tequila, lime and salt, but in a more appealing package.
How did this drink become known as a Margarita? Since Marjorie and her gang of friends came often to Rancho La Gloria, whenever their car caravan pulled up outside the bar, Carlos would spot the bunch, see Marjorie, and greet her with a hearty, “Margarita! Margarita!” the Spanish equivalent of her name. Then he’d start preparing her special drink.
It was instant name recognition. What else could it be called? Margarita was the perfect name for this sexy new drink. Meanwhile Marjorie (aka Margarita) went back to the States where she hung out with all her swell friends and introduced the drink to bartenders at some of the finer dining establishments in both Los Angeles and San Diego. When asked its name, she explained that Danny Herrera, the bartender who’d invented it, called it a Margarita.
The name stuck and by the 1950s Margaritas were being served everywhere in Southern California.
Soon after that, the Margarita began to make its way around the world as Marjorie’s Hollywood friends were globetrotters and took their love of the cocktail with them wherever they went.
So the next time you’re taking a swig of that marvelous frothy concoction, think back on a time when Baja California was still just a rugged strip of sandy desert and Cancun didn’t even exist. Think about a little bar with big views of the Pacific Ocean, and thank Carlos “Danny” Herrera for paying homage to a Hollywood beauty by inventing a delightful drink to brighten up her day. Salud!
© 2005 Jeanine Lee Kitchel