Na­tional Trea­sure: Mar­gar­i­tas, Any­one?

A Texas restau­rant owner blended tequila, ice and au­to­ma­tion. Amer­ica has been hung over ever since

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents -

THE WAY MAR­I­ANO Martinez tells it, ac­counts of the mar­garita’s be­gin­nings should be taken with a grain of salt— and a wedge of lime. Martinez is the cre­ator of what is ar­guably the 20th cen­tury’s most epochal in­ven­tion—the frozen mar­garita ma­chine— and, at the age of 73, the Dal­las restau­ra­teur is an in­dis­putable au­thor­ity on the cock­tail in the salt-rimmed glass.

The ori­gin sto­ries date to the '30s and tend to fea­ture a Mex­i­can show­girl or a Texas so­cialite and a bar­tender deter­mined to im­press her. One of Martinez’s fa­vorites in­volves a teenage dancer named Mar­garita Car­men Cansino who per­formed at night­clubs in Ti­juana. “Af­ter Mar­garita got a con­tract from a Hol­ly­wood stu­dio, she changed her name to Rita Hay­worth,” he says. “Sup­pos­edly, the drink was named in her honor.”

When it comes to mar­garita lore, about the only thing for cer­tain is that on May 11, 1971, Martinez pulled the lever on a re­pur­posed soft-serve ice cream dis­penser and filled a glass with a coil of pale green sher­bet—his­tory’s first pre­fab frozen mar­garita. The bev­er­age was teeth-chat­ter­ingly cold with a proper tequila face-slap. Happy hour (and hang­overs) would never be the same.

By adapt­ing mass-pro­duc­tion meth­ods to blender drinks, Martinez el­e­vated the frozen mar­garita from a bor­der-cantina cu­rios­ity to Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar cock­tail. The in­no­va­tion for­ever changed the Tex-Mex restau­rant busi­ness (plac­ing bars front and cen­ter) and trig­gered the craze for Tex-Mex food.

Be­fit­ting a mu­si­cian who once recorded three ver­sions of “La Bamba” on an EP ti­tled Lotta Bamba, the con­vivial Martinez has a fresh, boy­ish man­ner and a beam­ing smile. He grew up in East Dal­las, where at age 9 he started bussing ta­bles at El Charo, his fa­ther’s Mex­i­can eatery. “The cus­tomers were mostly An­g­los who of­ten had no idea what tequila was,” he re­calls. “They’d show up with a sou­venir bot­tle a friend had brought back from a va­ca­tion in Mex­ico, and ask my dad, ‘What do we do with this?’ ”

Though at the time liquor couldn’t be sold by the drink in Texas restau­rants, the el­der Martinez oc­ca­sion­ally would whip up frozen mar­gar­i­tas in a blender for his pa­trons. (In­tro­duced at a 1937 restau­rant show in Chicago and bankrolled by band­leader Fred War­ing, the hum­ble War­ing Blen­dor rev­o­lu­tion­ized bar drinks.) The el­der Martinez used a recipe gleaned while work­ing at a San An­to­nio speak-easy in 1938: ice, triple sec, hand-mud­dled limes and 100 per­cent blue agave tequila. The se­cret in­gre­di­ent was a splash of sim­ple syrup.

In 1970 an amend­ment to the state con­sti­tu­tion made liquor by the drink le­gal, in cities or coun­ties when ap­proved in lo­cal-op­tion elec­tions. Shortly af­ter Dal­las voted yes, the younger Martinez launched Mar­i­ano’s Mex­i­can Cui­sine in a shop­ping cen­ter near the cam­pus of South­ern Methodist Univer­sity. On open­ing night, the ami­able owner ap­peared

CUS­TOMERS HAD NO IDEA WHAT TEQUILA WAS. THEY'D ASK MY DAD, 'WHAT DO WE DO WITH THIS?'

in a ban­dido cos­tume. And cus­tomers, ser­e­naded by a mariachi band, were en­cour­aged to or­der mar­gar­i­tas made from the old fam­ily recipe. Li­ba­tions were poured faster than you could say “One more round.” The sec­ond night wasn’t quite as suc­cess­ful: A barfly cor­nered Martinez and asked, “Do you know how to make frozen mar­gar­i­tas?” “Oh, sure, sir, the best,” he an­swered. “Well, you’d bet­ter speak to your bar­tender. The ones he’s mak­ing are ter­ri­ble.”

As it turned out, the bar­man was so over­whelmed by the sheer vol­ume of mar­garita or­ders that he was toss­ing in­gre­di­ents into the blender with­out mea­sur­ing them. Tired of slic­ing limes, he threat­ened to quit and re­turn to his for­mer job at a Steak and Ale, where the most com­pli­cated cock­tail was a bour­bon and Coke. “I saw my dream evap­o­rat­ing,” Martinez says. “I thought, ‘ My restau­rant will go bust and I’ve screwed up Dad’s for­mula.’ ”

The next morn­ing while mak­ing a pit stop at a 7-Eleven, Martinez had a eureka mo­ment: “For bet­ter con­sis­tency, I’d pre­mix mar­gar­i­tas in a Slurpee ma­chine. All the bar­tender had to do was open the spigot.’” But 7-Eleven’s par­ent com­pany re­fused to sell him the con­trap­tion. “Be­sides,” Martinez was told, “ev­ery­one knows al­co­hol won’t freeze.”

In­stead of wast­ing away in Mar­gar­i­taville, he bought a sec­ond­hand soft-serve ice cream ma­chine and tin­kered with Dad’s recipe. Di­lut­ing the so­lu­tion with wa­ter made the booze taste too weak, but adding sugar pro­duced a uni­form slush. Martinez had struck gold. “Cuervo Gold!” he cracks. The sweet, vis­cous hooch was such a hit that when Bob Hope per­formed at SMU in the ’70s, he joked about the mar­garita he’d just or­dered at Mar­i­ano’s: “I won’t say how big it was, but the glass they serve it in had a div­ing board on it. And they salt the edge of the glass with a paint roller.”

Martinez’s orig­i­nal ma­chine cranked out ’ri­tas for a decade be­fore sput­ter­ing to a halt. Though he never re­ceived a patent or trade­mark for the de­vice, it has a place in his heart and, since 2005, in the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Museum of Amer­i­can His­tory. “The credit be­longs to her­itage and tech­nol­ogy,” he says. “The golden ra­tio was two parts of the past and one of the present.”

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