¡Viva la Margarita!

The drink that changed the way we eat

The sweet frozen margaritas at Mariano's Mexican Cuisine became an instant sensation. The Dallas Cowboys drank them; Trini Lopez and Lee Trevino drank them. But it was coeds from nearby Southern Methodist University who really spread the drink's fame.

"The margarita made tequila an acceptable drink for women," explains Marc N. Scheinman, marketing professor at Pace University's Lubin School of Business. Scheinman is the author of a study called "The Global Market for Tequila." Demographics played a huge role in the popularity of the frozen margarita. "The spread of the frozen margarita coincided with large numbers of young women coming into the workforce," says Scheinman. "It also coincided with a rise in immigration and the Mexicanization of American cuisine."

The rise of the margarita in the late 1970s and early 1980s set off a radical change in the Tex-Mex restaurant business. Vintage Tex-Mex restaurants didn't even have bars, but from the 1970s on, the bar became the center of every Tex-Mex restaurant.

"Drinkertainment":  Ra Sushi's mango margarita and crazy monkey roll.
Daniel Kramer
"Drinkertainment": Ra Sushi's mango margarita and crazy monkey roll.
Even Applebee's is serving top-shelf margaritas and nuevo Tex-Mex.
Daniel Kramer
Even Applebee's is serving top-shelf margaritas and nuevo Tex-Mex.

Along with the new focus on the bar came a different atmosphere. Whereas customers had once gone to simple Tex-Mex diners to enjoy a combination plate and depart, the festive new cantinas were designed to be hangouts. Many featured outdoor seating on patios or decks. The gang who went to get a drink after work now included more women, and they favored Tex-Mex restaurants over male-dominated bars and taverns.

The drink changed the way we ordered. Cocktail-friendly chips and salsa were more likely to be upgraded with accompaniments like chile con queso and guacamole. Easily shared bar snacks like a big pile of nachos or fajita meat with a stack of tortillas replaced individual entrées like combination plates as happy hour stretched into dinner.

The lobster ceviche at Sabor and the tuna tacos at Chuy's are the latest in a long line of snacks designed to sell more margaritas. But the frozen margarita not only changed the way we eat in Texas, it transformed the liquor business.

The explosive growth of the frozen margarita created a sharp spike in the demand for tequila. Between 1975 and 1995, tequila sales in the United States increased more than 1,500 percent. From 1995 to 2005, sales doubled again. In the early 1990s, tequila producers were overwhelmed by the demand. They were running out of agave, the plant that tequila is made from. The potential loss of revenues prompted the regulatory body that supervises tequila production in Mexico to liberalize the rules.

Whereas all tequila was once made with 100 percent agave, now tequila could be distilled from 51 percent agave supplemented with cane sugar. The result was cheap tequila bottled solely for the purpose of making margaritas, says Scheinman.

"The margarita is the No 1. cocktail in America," Scheinman says. "Sixty-five percent of the tequila sold in the United States goes into margaritas." The continuing popularity of the cocktail is having unimaginable repercussions. "The rise of the margarita meant that for the first time the major market for tequila was the U.S., not Mexico."

The United States surpassed Mexico in tequila consumption in 2000, and the market continues to grow, fueled by the nation's insatiable demand for margaritas. In Mexico, where tequila is a macho drink taken neat with a chaser, the American frozen cocktail is beginning to make headway among women. The drink is also gaining ground in Europe as part of the Tex-Mex restaurant phenomenon.

Mariano Martinez never received a patent or trademark for his idea. He doesn't think it would have been possible anyway. "I just started making margaritas in a machine that already existed," he shrugged.

"I go places now and I tell people I invented the frozen margarita, and they say, 'Yeah, right.'"

The "ultimate margarita" at the new Trece restaurant in Dallas is made with Herradura Seleccion Suprema tequila, fresh lime juice, some organic agave nectar and a dash of Red Bull. It sells for $45. And that's a bargain, considering that Herradura Seleccion Suprema sells for around $350 a bottle.

The Trece Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Lounge includes a cocktail bar, a tequila lounge, a patio and a VIP room. The menu includes such Nuevo Tex-Mex appetizers as lobster nachos garnished with jalapeño jelly and a seafood cocktail called a lobster mango margarita. The restaurant is designed to cash in on the emerging ultra-premium tequila trend.

As frozen margarita drinkers have grown up, they've started experimenting with more sophisticated cocktails. Shaker drinks like cosmos and martinis have inspired many margarita lovers to switch from frozen to shaken margaritas. Some consider shaken margaritas, sometimes known as "Mexican martinis," to be better showcases for premium tequilas.

I have tried many premium tequilas in many versions of the shaken margarita over the years. I consider them all a waste of good tequila. Reposados and añejo tequilas are aged in oak casks so they are easy to sip, and their mellow flavor is lost in a glass of lime juice. I would no more make a margarita with a Herradura Añejo than I would make a whiskey sour with 12-year-old Macallan single malt Scotch.

The bold, vegetal flavor of plata (silver) tequila is what you want in a margarita. I drink good tequila straight up, and I make frozen margaritas with inexpensive silver tequilas. At Spec's, the rotgut tequilas start at around $8.50 for 750 milliliters. Sauza is the best of the low end at around $13 a bottle, and it's my usual choice for frozen margaritas.

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