Can the Margarita Reclaim Its Cool?

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They're better when they don't come from repurposed fro-yo machines. Photo: iStockphoto

Like a lot of people, I'm not quite sure what Cinco de Mayo commemorates, but I'll celebrate it today nonetheless. And I'll do so happily because I love guacamole and margaritas. But the poor margarita. Besides maybe the daiquiri, no other cocktail has been transformed into such a déclassé imitation of what it originally was. (You don't see frozen-Manhattan machines, after all.) Ordering a margarita is often less about getting a drink and more about signaling to your companions that you intend for shit to get crazy. But it's a drink with history — respectable history. (It was invented, probably around 1940, in either Dallas or Tijuana — the exact origins are fuzzy, probably because the inventors were drinking margaritas.) That's the rub: Can a drink that is usually made in large batches and dispensed out of a soft-serve ice-cream machine still also maintain its place in the classic-cocktail canon?

To answer that question, I went to some of New York's most lauded cocktail bars: Clover Club, Pegu Club, Little Branch, and Death & Co. For comparison's sake, I also visited one outlier: El Sombrero on the Lower East Side, the sort of place where the margaritas are ordered according to which size cup you'd like.

When I told my companions about my plan to order margaritas at some of New York’s most revered and non-raucous cocktail bars, they considered it briefly, and then all basically said, "How sad for you."

“Why sad?” I asked.

“I hate margaritas,” one of them replied. “There’s no subtlety. It’s all blehhhhhh," she said, making a noise like a college kid throwing up. (I doubt similar complaints have been lobbed against, say, negronis.) Everyone had a margarita story, and indeed, in every one of them, shit had gotten crazy. “I just remember losing my pants,” someone said.

The other thing about ordering a margarita in a bar like Little Branch is that the bar is cool. But a margarita? "It calls your coolness into question," said the friend who had made the throw-up sounds.

Our waiter at Little Branch wore a fedora and suspenders; he looked ready to both shoot dice in the corner as well as sing about it. Without prompting, he pointed at the menu and said, “I’d recommend the Bar-Tender’s Choice. Just tell me what spirit you're interested in, and maybe what direction you’d like to take it, and our bartender will make something just for you.”

“Sounds great, but I think I’ll have a margarita,” I said. I might have been projecting, but I felt his disappointment. He just offered me a fine custom-made drink, and I threw tequila back in his face. This man was a pro, however, and he didn’t flinch.

“Salt?”

“Please.”

Essentially, all four bars reacted the same way. I projected my shame onto them; they asked me whether I wanted salt.

All of the margaritas were prepared almost exactly the same: nice blanco tequila, lime, and Cointreau. Beyond the similar recipes, the drinks even all looked the same: a rocks glass, cocktail straw, wedge of lime, salt on the rim. Pegu Club's version varied slightly; there was a lime disk floating in the glass rather than a wedge straddling the rim.

True, there was little that was unexpected in this presentation, which took away some of the fun. When I ordered a martini at Clover Club later, they served it with that nice beaker of extra martini on the side, kept cold in a tiny bowl of crushed ice. (Delightful.) Even at Chili’s, I remember being brought out a blue cocktail shaker with a little extra margarita inside. (Also delightful.)

“Do many people order margaritas here?” I asked the bartender at the Pegu Club after taking my first few sips of the margarita he made me.

“Yes, definitely,” he said without a trace of pity or suspicion. “It’s very popular.”

“It’s a totally respectable drink,” the waitress at Death & Co. told me. In fact, in talking with the bartenders, it’s clear that the margarita itself is not the problem. (Also clear: It's not at all embarrassing to order one in a serious cocktail bar.) Like most things in good-old late capitalism, it’s crappy ingredients and mass production that have ruined the idea of it: “I see nothing wrong with even the frozen margarita," Little Branch's Matt Clark said. "Where it’s gone wrong is that they make them in huge batches and let them sit all day in a spinning machine.”

And yet, it does feel a little weird to order a margarita at Little Branch, mostly because it’s hard to imagine a character from Guys and Dolls drinking one. Similarly with the Pegu Club and the Clover Club. These bars have styles — old Shanghai and old New York, respectively — into which their drinks fit, and fair or not, the margarita doesn’t really fit.

Maybe it's for that reason that the margaritas I had at El Sombrero were so wonderful. They did not taste as good as the drinks at the four other bars, but a short glass of slushy limey alcohol just felt right in the Mexican restaurant. The owner and his family were watching the Mets game when my friend and I sat down. Without really asking, we were dispensed two margaritas. They cost $5 each, and, while we drank them, we turned on our stools and watched the end of the Mets game, too.

Matthew Latkiewicz works for the Internet; he writes and podcasts about drinking and other subjects at You Will Not Believe. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Wired, time.com, boing boing and Gastronomica. Tragically, his wife-like girlfriend is allergic to wine.