31 Days of Decks in Central PA
In honor of Cinco de Mayo, we’ve dug out from the archives our June 2012 cover story on the quintessential summertime sipper, the margarita. This feature ran in advance of the inaugural Margarita Mix-Off competition that we helped produce at El Serrano Restaurante in Lancaster, which pitted 12 bartenders from across Central PA head-to-head as they whipped up their own unique spins to the classic cocktail. Spoiler alert: Ben Hash, whom we interviewed for the story in advance of the competition, was crowned the victor, earning him a free trip to the Cointreau Academy in Angers, France. We suggest consuming this here article while you consume a tasty, tequila-y ‘rita today (somewhere outside, of course).
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Viva La Margarita
From Prohibition to the present, America’s favorite Mexican-inspired cocktail is still evolving
It took him 14 hours and it started off with a trip to a local grocery store. Lancaster Central Market was next. The remaining 10 hours were spent creating, tweaking, scrapping and ultimately recreating recipe after recipe. In that time period, Ben Hash was equal parts artist and mad scientist.
His tools were a smorgasbord of liquors, juices, fruits, vegetables and spices. His goal was to create the best damn margarita of his eight-year bartending career.
It’s deadline day, which means the 27-year-old bartender from Lancaster City’s Penn Square Grille and Rendezvous Lounge [Ed. note: Ben is now the lead bartender at Horse Inn in Lancaster] has until the stroke of midnight to submit his recipe for the Ultimate Margarita Mix-Off, a statewide cocktail competition being held on June 9 at El Serrano Restaurante in Lancaster.
This marks Hash’s fourth appearance in a competitive bartending event; his resume includes first-place finishes in competitions sponsored by Bombay Sapphire gin and Brugal rum. It is, however, his first time working with tequila. And as usual, he’s waiting until the eleventh hour to make up his mind.
“I usually go right to the line with it,” he divulges over lunch – on deadline day. “Even with the Sapphire one, I changed the recipe six hours before I submitted it – I guess it was the right change. But you’ve got to have faith in yourself and trust your intuitions. If I put the right ingredients in, it’s going to work.”
The margarita is the product of three essential ingredients: tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice. But although its basic recipe is undisputed, the same cannot be said of its exact origin.
One account is anchored on the Spanish translation of “margarita,” which means “daisy.” At the turn of the 20th century, the Gin Daisy and the Whiskey Daisy were both prominent cocktails in America; each was a mixture of the respective liquor with grenadine and citrus juice and poured over shaved ice. But as Prohibition took hold, American tipplers began to rely on bootlegged whiskeys from Canada and Mexican tequila. The Daisy, so it’s said, received a Mexican makeover, and the Tequila Daisy was born. Years later, after World War II had subsided, the trendy Tequila Daisy was ousted by the margarita, which had replaced grenadine with lime juice and established Cointreau – a classic orange liqueur from France – as its citrus component.
Another claim, however, credits Margaret “Margarita” Sames, an affluent socialite from Texas, as the drink’s creator in 1948. According to that story, Sames was hosting a pool party at a home in Acapulco and wanted to offer her guests a unique cocktail.
“Cointreau was her favorite ingredient,” explains Chris Chamberlain, a master mixologist and organizer of this month’s Margarita Mix-Off event. “Someone had brought tequila, so she mixed the two together. Then, she added lime juice, and the margarita was invented.”
Other paternity claims have been made by bartenders and restaurateurs in Beverly Hills, Tijuana and even London, where the 1937-published Cafe Royal Cocktail Book includes a drink called the Picador. It’s recipe? Tequila, Cointreau and lime juice. But here in the States, Esquire Magazine is recognized as having first publishing the recipe under the name “margarita” in its December 1953 issue: “She’s from Mexico, Señores, and her name is the Margarita Cocktail … She is lovely to look at, exciting and provocative.”
Regardless, the drink’s origins have little bearing on the fact that it’s still one refreshing beverage. And given its evolutionary beginnings, it’s only fitting that today’s bartenders are still adding their own twists to the recipe. But in the context of the Margarita Mix-Off, there’s one nit-picky question that bears asking: Exactly how far can you stray from the tequila, Cointreau and lime juice recipe and still call it a margarita?
“I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to get away with,” says Hash in reference to the Mix-Off. “If you add club soda or a different spirit, it would pull it away from being a margarita. To keep it a margarita, you need tequila, orange and lime to remain your primary flavors. All I’m doing is taking a story that’s been written with three main characters and creating a supporting cast.”
“At Luna, we feature hand-crafted margaritas,” explains Treven. “It’s more than just blending flavors. It’s making the margaritas work with different ingredients.”
But here in the States, Esquire Magazine is recognized as having first publishing the recipe under the name “margarita” in its December 1953 issue: “She’s from Mexico, Señores, and her name is the Margarita Cocktail … She is lovely to look at, exciting and provocative.”
Before joining Luna when the restaurant opened last year, Treven’s experience was mostly culinary, having served as a chef at a number of brewpubs. In many ways, his attitude behind the bar is akin to a chef’s in the kitchen.
“When you learn to cook, you don’t follow recipes,” he says. “You follow the ingredients. And you play with them and blend them and make them work. The same goes with good cocktails, and especially our margaritas.”
For Jose Fuentes, co-owner of Character’s Pub in downtown Lancaster and another competitor in the Mix-Off, the secret is balance.
“You need to make sure that it’s not too sweet,” states Fuentes. “It’s all about using the right ingredients – not just sour mix, tequila, a little triple sec and Sprite or something goofy. When you do it right, there’s a huge difference – and your tongue will tell you what it is.”
Fuentes’ expertise lies in tequilas, and he has studied the spirit extensively. Born in Mexico, he recalls visiting a bar called La Cucaracha as a small child with his father and taking shots of Coca-Cola while his relatives enjoyed tequila shots. Since then, he cut his teeth bartending in Boston, Manhattan and Los Angeles.
“If you get a good recipe, and you know what you like and you know how things should taste,” says Fuentes, “you should have no problem making the margarita the right way.”
Hash agrees. “I think the winner’s cocktail will understand the tequila and the flavors that it offers,” he says. “The winner’s recipe will be able to complement the three flavors – the orange, the lime and the tequila – and provide good supporting roles. If it’s too far away from a margarita, you’re not gonna win. It truly is all about balance.”
Hopefully by now, you’ve begun reevaluating your relationship with the margarita. Maybe you’ve taken its tangy flavor for granted, or used it as a crutch to help you stomach the taste of tequila. Either way, it’s never too late to get your taste buds in gear and pay attention next time you order one. And with summer in full force, the time is right to get to know your favorite cocktail a little more intimately.
Follow Fly’s 31 Days of Decks all month long for info on where and what to eat and drink outside in Central PA.