By Jeanine Lee Kitchel
Was there a Margarita behind the margarita? Of course. But contrary to what you may have imagined, this woman was not a Mexican beauty but instead a fledgling Hollywood starlet.
And although other Margarita namesakes have surfaced and vied for this distinction, this starlet has all the trappings of the real McCoy.
Years ago a eulogy aired on NPR for a man named Carlos “Danny” Herrera, who’d died at the age of 90 in San Diego. Although the name rang no bells, he left an unforgettable legacy. He’d created one of the world’s most famous cocktails, the margarita.
It was 1992 and NPR took the story from the San Diego Union-Tribune which paid homage to Herrera who’d been raised in Mexico City but moved to San Diego five years before his death.
Herrera worked his way across Mexico and settled south of Tijuana in 1929. He and his wife built their house in rugged Baja California. They added a bar in their home to entertain friends. More people started to drop in and he opened for business; later they added a restaurant. Then came ten hotel rooms and a pool along with a booming clientele from across the border.
Rosarita Beach just down the road was becoming a fashionable getaway for the Hollywood crowd and Carlos’ place was an easy pit stop for a quick refreshment on the dusty Baja road. By 1935 traffic was heavy.
Carlos was a friendly guy with a quick wit and his bar-restaurant, named Rancho La Gloria after his daughter, attracted stars and socialites who stopped in on a regular basis. Among the bar’s clientele was an actress named Marjorie King. While all her friends were taking advantage of Carlos’ talents as bartender, Ms. King didn’t partake in the revelry. She was allergic, so the tale went, to all alcohol except tequila.
What luck, Carlos cajoled. Tequila is the national drink of Mexico, he said as he poured the actress a straight shot of the clear, strong liquid, brought out a plate of limes and set a salt shaker beside her on the bar.
Marjorie wrinkled her pretty nose, gave Carlos a “not so fast” look and informed him she hated the taste of it.
What was a girl to do? In those wild and reckless days not long after Prohibition, how could one sit idly by and not join in the fun? Herrera was determined to put an end to Ms. King’s misery. He went to work.
Herrera decided he would create the ultimate concoction for the attractive actress. He started experimenting and came up with a winner: three parts white tequila, two parts triple sec, one part fresh lime juice, a pinch of sugar. As the day was hot he added shaved ice and blended the mixture with a shaker. King liked the looks of the drink immediately.
But how to serve it? Marjorie King was no ordinary gal, and Carlos wanted to pay tribute to her sense of style. Something special was needed. He grabbed a champagne glass, dipped its rim in lemon juice, and twirled it in a bowl of salt. Reshaking the contents he then poured the frothy liquid into the champagne glass and presented it to King.
The result: the soon to be famous margarita, shaken not stirred. And what a coincidence. The drink included all the ingredients of a traditional tequila shooter, but in a more appealing package.
How did the drink come to be known as a margarita? Since Marjorie and her gang of friends came often to Carlos’ bar, whenever their car caravan pulled up outside, Carlos would spot the bunch, see Marjorie and greet her with a hearty “Margarita! Margarita!” the Spanish equivalent of her name. Then he’d start to prepare her special drink.
It was instant name recognition. Margarita was the perfect name for this sexy new drink. Meanwhile Marjorie went back to the States where she hung out with all her swell friends and introduced the drink to bartenders at some of the finer dining establishments from Los Angeles to San Diego. When asked its name, she explained the bartender who’d invented it called it a margarita.
The name stuck and by the 50s margaritas were being served everywhere in Southern California. Soon afterwards, the margarita began making its way ’round the world as Marjorie’s friends were globe trotters and took their love of the cocktail with them wherever they went.
So the next time you’re taking a sip of that marvelous frothy concoction known as the margarita think back on a time when Baja California was still just a rugged strip of sandy desert and Cancun didn’t even exist. Think about a little bar with big views of the Pacific Ocean and thank Carlos “Danny” Herrera for paying homage to a Hollywood beauty by inventing a delightful drink to brighten up her day. Salud!