In a large glass display case at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., sits one of modern drinking history’s most important artifacts: the first frozen margarita machine.
It’s a particularly interesting item today, considering that imbibers across America are celebrating the tequila-centric holiday Cinco de Mayo. The contraption, covered in fake wood grain, looks suspiciously like something you might find in a sweets shop in a beach town along the Jersey Shore.
There’s a simple reason for that: In May 1971, the father of the frozen Rita, Mariano Martinez, retrofitted a soft-serve ice cream machine to dispense his family’s signature frosty cocktail at his Dallas restaurant Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine. (The original location has since become a small chain with six locations around Texas.)
While it sounds a bit like a Rube Goldberg creation, Martinez’s invention was used for 34 years before it was donated to the museum in September 2005.
The machine also helped the frozen margarita to go viral and become a drinks icon arguably as famous as the gin martini and the rye Manhattan. (It’s all that more impressive considering that in the 1970s there was, of course, no Twitter, no Facebook, or Pinterest to fan the fires of its popularity.)
Even more impressive, the success of the cocktail “kicks the interest in Tex-Mex cuisine into overdrive,” says Steve Velasquez, curator at the National Museum of American History, division of home and community life. “The margarita becomes a center draw for a lot of restaurants.”
What helped its meteoric rise was, according to Chantal Martineau, author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit, many drinkers were already making frozen Margaritas at home in a blender. “Then people started ordering it in the bar,” she says. That’s when the trouble started…
Most restaurants and bars—including Martinez’s—found the cocktail to be too labor intensive to produce consistently. That’s not to mention the constant whine of the blender blades chopping the ice cubes into slush. “It was a very busy place and it put too much pressure on the bartenders,” says Martineau of the situation.
Martinez realized he needed to find a solution to this problem, since customers kept ordering the drink and the bartenders still didn’t have time to make it properly.
He found a possible answer in an unlikely place, a local 7-Eleven. The Slurpee machine, which was still a relatively new gadget, having been introduced in 1965, seemed like the perfect thing to make Margaritas in large batches. “The entire concept hit me at one time,” Martinez told The Dallas Morning News.
One problem: 7-Eleven wouldn’t let Martinez buy one of their machines. The next best thing he could find was an ice cream machine that he tweaked to serve drinks. After a series of adjustments and with help from his friend John Hogan, according to the museum, he was able to use a standard Sani-Serv model to make a refreshingly slushy margarita.
He never patented his creation, since it was based on somebody else’s pre-existing machine, which ultimately aided the drink’s success and ubiquitousness.
But his invention “also acted as a catalyst for the drink’s decline because of the need to adulterate the recipe,” says Martineau. “Frozen drinks, especially out of a machine, have to be made with more concentrated flavors otherwise they get diluted. That means more sugar, lime cordial, or some other manufactured mix. Can’t just pour the fresh lime juice from the shaker to the machine.”
Despite that change in recipe, it was a pretty immediate hit with Martinez’s patrons and soon around the country. “It made [the margarita] more exciting to order,” says Martineau. “People would have gone to a bar and thought ‘Groovy.’”