The French have their Champagne, the Germans their beer and New Yorkers their martinis. But Texans, particularly those living on the coast, have the margarita. The concoction, as Jimmy Buffett sang, helps us hang on.
There’s something fitting about sipping a margarita at sunset on a deck with Gulf of Mexico views, the sounds of surf, and, of course, the sight of all those tourists covered in oil.
The margarita, stripped to its essence, is simple — tequila, triple sec, freshly squeezed lime juice and coarse salt to rim the glass. But its history is complex and debate rages about its origins.
Many lay claim to its original recipe, but the mystery of the margarita remains unsolved and is surrounded by legend and lore. And like many good legends, Galvestonians have a hand in this one.
Local lore is that the margarita was born behind the bar at the former Studio Lounge in Galveston and that its birthright belongs to the late Santos Cruz.
In a 1987 interview with The Daily News, Cruz recounted the fateful day in 1948 that he first mixed a margarita for singer Peggy Lee.
“It was almost like an accident,” he said.
The singer liked tequila, but didn’t like the salt and lemon follow-up by hand, he told reporters. There was a popular drink at that time called the “Sidecar.” Cruz substituted tequila for the brandy and rimmed the glass with salt rather than sugar. Lee’s husband, Dave Barbour, was said to have named the drink the Spanish version of Margaret, which is a traditional nickname for Peggy.
But another story comes from the sandy shores of Acapulco, where socialite Margaret Sames hosted lavish fiestas at which she served a signature lime libation bearing her nickname: Margarita.
Or, perhaps it was euphoria induced by a full day of sightseeing in the hot Tijuana sun, that drove Iowa newspaper editor James Graham and his wife to sit down at a bar serving the Tequila Daisy, a combination of tequila, lemon juice, sugar and Curaçao liqueur. How do you say “daisy” in Spanish? You guessed it — margarita.
Although the definition is constantly expanding, the margarita’s agave backbone is the thread that connects modern derivations to their classic predecessor. The cocktail’s essence, an underlying note of agave, originated 1,000 miles southwest of Galveston County in Jalisco, Mexico.
Once upon a time in Tequila, a town half the size of Galveston, Don Cenobio Sauza built an empire that is still kicking today.
Outside of town, crews from nearby tequila distilleries gather to source the brew’s most essential ingredient.
Much work goes into getting to the core, or piña, of the agave plant. Once harvested, it’s baked and toasted, chopped and shredded to make an extract.
Although Sauza remains a household name, craft distilleries have embraced traditional techniques and have begun to manufacture agave liquors stamped with the label: Made in the U.S.A.
“To call blue agave spirits ‘tequila,’ you must make it in the Tequila region,” said Kelly Railean, who built a boutique distillery in 2005. “Think Champagne verses sparkling wine.”
On the edge of San Leon, only blocks from Galveston Bay, Railean’s Eagle Point Distillery started by barreling Texas rum, but in 2010 began producing El Perico, a 100 percent blue agave spirit that tangos with top-shelf tequilas.
“Good tequila or good blue agave spirits are very important to your margarita,” Railean said. “If your spirits don’t taste very good then your margarita is not going to taste good.”
Frozen or on the rocks
Much like the margarita’s origins, there are multiple versions of the recipe. Area bartenders put their own twist on the cocktail.
• At Tsunami Exotic Tequila Emporium, 2314 Strand in the island’s downtown, the Champion Margarita takes top billing. A mix of Milagro Silver Tequila, watermelon liqueur, agave nectar and fresh lime and watermelon juice, the version won the Margarita Jackpot at the 2014 Yaga’s Chili Quest.
• Try the Mojito Rita at Squeeze Ritas & Tequilas, 3204 Seawall Blvd. The Mojita Rita packs a healthy punch of Patron Silver and Patron Citronage shaken with simple syrup and mint leaves. The Island Famous Frozen Rita, made with Sauza Conmemorative, Cointreau and Grand Marnier, is also a fan favorite.
• Or visit SideYard, in the same 3204 Seawall Blvd. complex, and choose the Sizzlin’ Strawberry Rita from the menu of Mason jar cocktails. The combination of smashed strawberries, jalapeño-infused tequila, orange liqueur and sweet and sour, garnished with fresh jalapeños, dances on the border of sweet and heat.
• At Salsas Mexican Restaurant, 4604 Seawall Blvd. on the island, the Beer Rita defies logic in taste and composition. The long-neck Corona bottle is like a beer slide into a slushy pool of limey, frozen goodness.
• For its fresh, muddled jalapeño, you might say those who choose the Honey Pineapple Margarita are playing with fire, but H20 Pool + Bar’s concoction is a well-balanced act. The ultrasmooth, herbaceous Avion Silver plays well with jalapeño syrup, fresh lime juice and sweet and sour. H2O Pool + Bar is at the San Luis Resort, 5222 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston.
• The favored Dead Man’s Earring at the Lazy Lizard, 3145 state Highway 6 in Hitchcock, is a mix of Espolon Resposado, GranGala Liqueur, fresh lime juice, agave liqueur with a splash of orange juice. If you’re in the mood for muddled, try the Agave Squeeze. It’s a cool combination of El Jimador Blanco and fresh lime muddled with agave nectar topped with a floater of Agavero Agave Liqueur.
• At TopWater Grill, 815 Ave. O in San Leon, the TopWater Margarita is making waves. To do the Cuervo 1800, Cointreau and fresh lime juice justice, order it on the rocks.
• At La Brisa Mexican Bar & Grill in League City (501 Wesley Drive) or Bacliff (4001 state Highway 6) two margaritas vie for primacy — the Horny Toad, made with Sauza Hornitos Tequila and Grand Marnier and the El Jefe, made with Don Julio Tequila and Grand Marnier. Can’t decide? Sample both.
• A lot of work and ultra luxe liqueurs go into the Best Margarita at Senor Sombrero’s Mexican Grill, 2640 E. League City Parkway in League City. One hundred-year-old Grand Marnier, Tres Generaciones tequila, fresh lime juice, olive juice and a house made ginger simple syrup are shaken table side to create the Shangri-La of cocktails.
• The gold standard for seafood in Galveston, Gaido’s, 3800 Seawall Blvd., serves up a Classic Margarita to rival the best Mexican restaurants in town. It’s made with Patron Silver, Cointreau and fresh squeezed lime juice and served on the rocks with salt.
With its history and proximity to dozens of restaurants serving classic and cutting-edge versions of the drink, it’s no wonder the island will be host to this year’s Texas Margarita Festival will be held in Galveston on the second weekend in June at Moody Gardens.