With Cinco de Mayo coming up on Monday, bars and restaurants throughout the suburbs will be doing a brisk business in margaritas -- adding special touches to make the drink all their own.
How did the tequila-based cocktail become so ubiquitous?
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There are a number of stories, but Kyle Ford, cocktail and spirits expert for Remy Cointreau, traces the cocktail back to 1948 when Dallas socialite Margarita Sames served a mix of tequila, Cointreau and lime juice during a party at her vacation home in Acapulco. Her guests, including hotelier Tommy Hilton, couldn't get enough.
"There are other origin stories, but she was a real person who hung out with some important people like John Wayne and Lana Turner," Ford said. "The people she entertained fell in love with (the margarita) and brought it back to L.A."
Now Ford says the margarita accounts for about 18 percent of mixed drink sales with 185,000 consumed every hour. It's inspired countless variations. You can add spicy or citrus-flavored salt to the rim, use aged reposado or anejo tequilas instead of the classic blanco, or even mix in additional spirits such as bourbon.
"You can get inspired from the seasonal ingredients and what's coming in from the local markets," Ford said. "I like making my margarita spicy to go with Mexican food, and you can do that by just muddling in some jalapeņos, serranos or habaneros if you're crazy."
Ford also recommends trying margaritas mixed with mescal, another spirit made from the Mexican agave plant. "It provides a more smoky, complex flavor profile than your general tequila," he said.
You don't have to go far to find some classic and creative takes on the drink.
Rito Huizar, owner of Rito's Mexican Restaurant in Aurora, said he serves more than 30 gallons of margaritas each day, pouring them in 16-, 27- or massive 44-ounce glasses. "When you go to a Mexican place, you're expecting to have a nice dinner and enjoy a margarita," Huizar said.
He's used the same base recipe, which mixes plenty of tequila with lemon and lime juice, for 40 years. But he also serves the cocktail with fresh mango, strawberries and banana. For a real show, you can order the flaming margarita, which is topped with Grand Marnier and Bacardi 151 and set ablaze at your table.
Barbakoa in Downers Grove offers more than 100 types of tequila and mescal, and you can have a margarita mixed with any of them.
"I think there's been a resurgence in tequila in the last couple of years with people exploring mescals and agave spirits," said bar manager Xavier Carlin. "It's a really good way to try tequila if you're not a tequila person. It lets the tequila be itself, but it's a nice refreshing drink."
Ford agreed that the margarita offers a great way to try a new spirit, whether you're out or at home. "I think the reason it's maintained its popularity is we have access to far better tequila," he said. "The simplicity of the drink is something that anyone can replicate."
Barbakoa's base margarita is mixed with hand-squeezed lime juice, organic blue agave nectar and reposado tequila, hand-shaken and poured over ice. "The reposado brings a little bit of extra flavor because it's aged just a little bit but doesn't overpower the other ingredients," Carlin said.
Other variations include the smoky margarita, made with house-smoked anejo tequila, and the Caliente Sunrise, which features reposado tequila, jalapeno-orange marmalade, muddled orange, agave nectar and lime juice. "It's got a little bit of sweetness to it, a little bit of spice," Carlin said. "The margarita is our primary drink. It's our most important drink and it's something we take pride in."