The Man Who Invented the Margarita

And other great bartenders.

Columbus, Dr. Jonas Salk, Thomas Edison, and Edwin Land (of Polaroid) were all pioneers in their fields. And to them in varying de­grees have gone the honors and rewards for men who push beyond the edge of existing knowledge into the world of the unknown. There is one man of this breed, however, who until now has not received his full ration of honors. For many of us—at least during certain periods of the day—his discovery ranks in the same class with those of other better-known men.

In 1951, only 5449 gallons of tequila were imported from Mexico into the United States. Last year, according to industry sources, more than 2.8 million gallons poured in, with the major mar­ket west of the Mississippi. From a two- fisted drink taken straight with various combinations of lemon, lime, and salt standing by, this clear beverage made from the agave, a cactus-like plant, has become the ingredient of cocktails rang­ing from the Tequila Sunrise to the Guerrilla Sweat.

What made tequila’s success, how­ever, was the Margarita, a light, icy drink made with tequila, cointreau, and lime, and drunk from a glass with its lip rimmed in salt. Like sliced bread and toothpaste, the Margarita seems always to have been with us. But not so. The inventor, one of the great bartenders along the border, still lives, only today he drives (yes) a milk truck.

Pancho Morales, 56, who has driven a truck for Price’s Creameries in El Paso for the last eighteen years, says he in­vented the Margarita in the summer of 1942 at Tommy’s Place (now a curio shop) on Juarez Avenue. He also in­vented the Conga Cooler.

Before immigrating to the United States in 1945, Morales was a Juarez bartender for 21 years. “He was the best in Juarez, and in all of Mexico,” says a former co-worker who confirmed Morales’ invention. Morales also taught the union’s bartenders’ school in Juarez.

In the “old days” along Juarez Ave­nue during World War II and the swashbuckling years of a lost genera­tion, soldiers training at Fort Bliss drift­ed through Juarez, as did a crowd of Hemingway-style drinkers who played hard, living by the day as war mounted. Morales was head bartender at Tom­my’s. He used to create drinks for his customers, and signs over the bar would regularly promote new concoctions such as the “P-38,” “B-29,” and the “Conga Cooler.”

“I had signs for all my mixed drinks,” said Morales at his pleasant suburban El Paso home, his wife Mar­garita at his side, his three children looking on as he leafed through old photographs and clippings. “Customers would come in and I’d say, ‘Well, Mr. Cooper, you like mixed drinks? Well, I’ll make you a Cooper Special and if you like it, then you order another one.’ Maybe when I mix three or four, when you came back the next day, I would remember. Many drinks like this hit the spot,” said Morales. “You see, we kept making these signs.”

He remembers when the Margarita came to life.

“Exactly, it was one Fourth of July. That Fourth of July, everybody came to Tommy’s Place… well, not every­body, but a lot of people.

“A lady came in and said, ‘Let me have a Magnolia.’

“Well, the bartender, same as cooks and artists… the bartender has a lot of pride. We have too much pride to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry … I don’t know how to make that drink.’”

Morales knew, roughly, that a Mag­nolia contained cointreau, some lime, and booze. To save face, he faked it and made it with tequila.

“I gave it to her and she says, ‘Oh, this is not a Magnolia, but it is very good.’ And, I said, ‘Oh, oh, I thought you said Margarita.’ You see, daisy, in Spanish, is margarita. The reason I called it the Margarita is because I was thinking of the flower margarita, like the magnolia. She liked it. That’s how it originated.

“Pretty soon she ordered another one and someone said, ‘Hey, what’s that?’

“Then I start to put the salt,

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