CLASSIC COCKTAILS SUCH AS THE MANHATTAN, SAZERAC, OR NEGRONI DATE BACK TO THE 1800’S. The Margarita, however, can’t really be traced much earlier than the 1930s. See, Prohibition was a real kick in the teeth for Americans. Ban something that everyone loves and, lo and behold, you make folks desire it more! Just as Canadian whisky came across the border thanks to our neighbors of the north, tequila started trickling in from south of the border. Americans grew fond of the spirit very quickly, to the point where now, in 2017, we’re credited as the number one consumer of tequila in the world! Turns out the red, white, and blue has a serious taste for the blue weber agave!

The 1937 publication of the Café Royal Cocktail Book highlighted a drink called the Picador: 2 parts tequila, 1 part Cointreau, 1 part lime. That certainly sounds freakishly close to the imbibement of which we are detailing. More curiously, the 1953 issue of Esquire alludes to a Dallas woman named Margarita Sames. While hosting a Christmas party at her house in Acapulco, Ms. Sames placated her unruly and unsatisfied guests with a special concoction comprised of her favorite ingredients: tequila and Cointreau, and freshly squeezed lime. The guests loved it so much they named the drink after her. I could go on ad nauseum about the origin of the margarita, but frankly I don’t believe any of the stories. It was probably created in Mexico decades before the credit was given.

According to Ryan Brown, Beverage Director of Anise Gastrobar in Tampa, “the margarita is Mexico’s version of the “sour cocktail.” Sours are far from new, as we have the whiskey sour here in the US, the Collins in the UK, the daiquiri in the Caribbean and the Pisco sour in South America. A sour is a cocktail combining a spirit, a sweetener and citrus. To think that a British cocktail book or a Texan socialite threw tequila in the mix before someone harvested the agave is beyond me!

BESITO MEXICAN RESTAURANT

No two margaritas are alike, and the phrase “to each his/her own” truly does fit. Besito, a locally-adored Mexican restaurant in Westshore, Tampa, offers a very wide variety of classic and creative choices meant to fit each individual patron. My personal favorite is the Passion Caliente, combining passion fruit nectar, tequila, and a house-made 3-chili hot sauce with fresh lime and a chipotle-salt rim. It hits all the notes I look for: sour, sweet, herbal, and boozy!

The Besito Patron Margarita certainly won’t disappoint either, combining a unique mix of tangerine and pomegranate juices with a special reserve batch of Patron Reposado, hand-selected by Managing Partner Andres Farfan. Their current barrel of specially selected Patron rests in French Limousin oak and blends masterfully with the mix of fruits. Unless stated at Besito, their margaritas will come unsalted, breaking the norm but definitely delighting this particular writer. “We want you to taste the spirit and the cocktail,” says Farfan. “Salt was used forever ago to mask bad tequila. We don’t use bad tequila, so there is nothing to cover up.” Pair one of these cocktails with Mr. Farfan’s hospitality and a dish from Chef Joe Mugenski, and you are in for a real treat. I’m not saying you  should definitely order the nutty and herbal Tamarindo Margarita to go with your Budin de Mariscos, except, well…that’s exactly what I’m saying. Knockout restaurant, and Mugenski and Farfan make a great team!

ANISE GLOBAL GASTROBAR

Staying on the same side of the bridge, don’t underestimate the Asian inspired Anise Global Gastrobar for your agave fix. Their Hibiscus Margarita is quite delicious, made with Herradura Reposado, hibiscus water, simple syrup and lime, all garnished with some dried hibiscus flowers.

Anise’s house Diablo cocktail is also extremely memorable—it combines tequila with a house-made Thai chili simple syrup, lime juice and ginger beer, adds dashes of crème de cassis and crème de mure, and tops it all off with tart, candied ginger. Mix in some of their luxurious dishes, a close proximity to Amelie Arena and the Straz Center, as well as the view of Curtis Hixon Park directly across the street, and you have a very consistent destination for drinks and dining in downtown Tampa.

AGAVE RESTAURANT

How can one discuss the quintessential beach drink that is the margarita without mentioning one’s favorite beach dining establishment? I can’t think of a better way to follow up a Gulf sunset than a meal at Agave Restaurant on Gulf Boulevard. Agave offers friendly service, delicious homemade Mexican food and an expansive tequila selection. I always make it a point to try something different, both in dishes as well as tequila. My mother, however, is a creature of habit—she has a very hard time not ordering the Enchiladas de Camarones topped with green chile poblano crème sauce to pair with her house margarita. I suppose I can’t blame her, as the margaritas are hand-shaken with a house-made mix, pairing beautifully with the poblano crème. If you ever feel so inclined as to make margaritas on your own, swing into Pappy’s Liquor next door and ask for Rick, who can show you a very impressive tequila selection as well.

RED MESA CANTINA

It’s impossible to mention margaritas in Tampa Bay and not think of Red Mesa Cantina, current three-time winner of “Best of the Bay–Best Margarita.” Perhaps it’s the draft system that they have exclusively for these award-winning margaritas?

Or the tequila-centric cocktail menu sporting such favorites as the Downtown Cadillac, combining Hornitos Plata with a float of St. Pete Distillery’s award-winning Tipplers Orange Liquor? The staff at Cantina goes through testing and constant training to improve their Tequila knowledge. This is to every patron’s benefit, considering Red Mesa Cantina has well over 400 agave spirits that include a whopping 75+ mezcals!

Beyond the house on tap, Cantina makes their margaritas in the fashion of the iconic Tommy’s Margarita: blending organic agave nectar, fresh lime, and tequila. My personal favorite at Cantina is the crowd favorite Duck Taco to pair with the newly-featured Floridita Margarita. The Floridita combines floral Don Julio Plata with a house-infused hibiscus agave, fresh lime and a dash of hibiscus water.

If you’re a fire seeker, you certainly can’t go wrong with the Hot Carlos—a spicy fusion of Hornitos Reposado, fresh-muddled jalapeño, organic agave and lime, with a chili-salt rim. Order a ceviche sampler for the table and a mixture of margaritas to really indulge in the variety that Cantina can offer.

A cocktail that appears so simple and people pleasing can be as nuanced as a fine stew. You can mix up your citrus, sweetener and tequila. You can add orange liquor or skip it, sour/margarita mix or agave nectar. One thing is certain when it comes to the margarita: it is adored, cherished, and loved, despite its relatively young lifetime. So cheers to the margarita—Mexico’s favorite cocktail! (That’s actually not true, that would be the Paloma, but we can save that for another time).