How Chili’s Margarita Became the Big Mac of Cocktails

Aaron Goldfarb How Chili’s Margarita Became the Big Mac of Cocktails

8 minute Read

I love Chili’s Margaritas.

As a drinks writer, I spend a lot of time on the road, traveling to far-flung locales in search of the world’s most exciting beers, whiskeys, and cocktails. Usually I have to fly to get there. When I’m at an airport waiting to go to, say, Islay, Scotland, or returning from Copenhagen, Denmark, I’m often sitting alone in the terminal’s Chili’s, drinking a Margarita.

I can’t help myself. Like any good Brooklyn yuppie I hate chain restaurants — but I, like plenty of others, throw my snobbery out the artisanally refurbished window for a Chili’s Margarita.

The generic Margarita has long held the crown as America’s most ordered cocktail; but no other chain restaurant offers anything as iconic as Chili’s bracing category bid. What cocktail would you order at an Applebee’s? Or Ruby Tuesday? How about TGI Fridays? (A fucking Mudslide?!)

Unlike McDonald’s, which proudly proclaims how many billion burgers they’ve served, Chili’s would rather make you try to visual it. The chain’s various marketing documents note they serve “135,000 gallons” each year. They claim that’s enough to fill “13 swimming pools,” or to top “4,500 bathtubs.”

At a Chili’s, there’s really no other option but to reflexively order a Margarita. We don’t need an exact count to identify it as the Big Mac of cocktails. Billions served. Many … over-served.

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Chain restaurants are being killed by millennials! More than 130 Applebee’s locations will be shuttered this year. Ruby Tuesday is about to go out of business. Sometimes I wonder if the only people eating at chain restaurants these days are millennial bloggers doing some sort of stunt in the hopes of producing viral content (“I Ate Alone at the Times Square Olive Garden for Ten Days”). Yet Chili’s is … doing all right.

Maybe that’s because, more so than those other middlebrow, microwaveable food places, Chili’s has always focused heavily on drinking. Boozing can never be killed by authenticity-seeking, Instagram-obsessed millennial locavores.

Chili’s goes for the odd, reverse-naming convention of Chili’s Grill & Bar, giving bar the placement of prominence. That’s a crucial point, folks. Something surely intended right from the beginning.

Mariano Martinez invented the Frozen Margarita machine

Mariano Martinez invented the Frozen Margarita machine (Courtesy Riverfront Times)

In the 1970s, the state of Texas “changed the way you could purchase mixed drinks in restaurants, and had ended the system of carrying a membership card for every restaurant,” explains Chili’s founder Larry Lavine of a draconian system that literally did not allow mixed drinks in Texas restaurants until 1972. “Our idea was to create a place that was cool enough where you could get a great burger and a Margarita at dinner as well as lunch.”

Once the law was changed, Margaritas instantly became red hot in the Dallas area. This was in large part due to the genius of another local restaurateur. Mariano Martinez, a 26-year-old high school dropout born in Dallas’s “Little Mexico” neighborhood, was trying to find success with his eponymous spot, Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine. Unfortunately, his bartenders couldn’t jigger tequila, juice limes, and mix Margaritas fast enough for the thirsty crowds.

“I had a sleepless night and the next day, I stopped to get a cup of coffee at a 7-Eleven and I saw that Slurpee machine,” Mariano Martinez told The Dallas Morning News in 2010. “The entire concept hit me at one time.”

Martinez’s frozen Margarita machine would alleviate the frustrations of cranking out hand-crafted cocktails using a blender. It would immediately turn his restaurant into a local triumph and frozen Margaritas into a massive international sensation. Since Martinez (intentionally) never patented his invention, other Dallas restaurants were soon following his lead. Almost overnight, they became a “must” accompaniment for Tex-Mex cuisine.

Chili’s first location opened in 1975 in a former postal station in Dallas’s Vickery Meadows neighborhood. Unlike the Tex-Mex-heavy noshes it’s famous for today, Chili’s first menu included those great burgers Lavine had envisioned, tacos, and, yes, three different types of chili. There were also three adult beverage options:  a “frosted mug” of beer, homemade sangria, and, you guessed it, frozen Margaritas for a whopping $1.50 a piece. Chili’s was cranking out these Margaritas from its earliest days, mainly because the lines to get in the door were so long that anxious customers had no choice but to drink ’em.

“I went to a Make-a-Wish fundraiser recently at Dallas Country Club and I was talking to a billionaire — I don’t want to say his name — but he tells me he loves Chili’s,” Steve Provost, Chili’s chief marketing officer, says. Back when the original Chili’s opened on Dallas’s Greenville Avenue, the billionaire would take his then-girlfriend there for dinner. “The long line snaked past the bar so they’d get some drinks while they waited,” Provost says. “He told me, ‘I have four kids because of your frozen margaritas!’”

If Lavine grew the restaurant into a local sensation, it became a world-renowned chain in 1983, when Pillsbury restaurants president Norman Brinker (and reputed inventor of the salad bar) bought up most of Lavine’s equity and became Chili’s CEO. Dallas Magazine called the then-inexplicable change “akin to trading a Corvette for a Corvair.” At the time, Chili’s had 23 locations, all in the southwestern United States, and Lavine was still focusing on burgers. Brinker quickly pivoted the chain toward Tex-Mex.

Almost immediately, Brinker added the so-called “sizzling” fajitas to the menu — a culinary concept so foreign to customers that early menus had a phonetic pronunciation to help them order (“fa-heet-ah”). He gave the world Chili’s “baby back baby back baby back ribs” two years later.

Of course, Margaritas still figured prominently under Brinker, though they mostly remained generic. That was until a crucial date in 1994. It was that move that would turn Chili’s Margaritas from a mere top-selling menu item into an icon — into the Big Mac of cocktails.

Then again, Brinker previously served as President of Burger King — so maybe it is actually the Whopper?

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“No one knows Margaritas like we do,” Chili’s trumpets on the laminated, nacho-fingers-greased menu it hands you. The next line tellingly notes, “Hand Shaken, House-Made Sour, Top Shelf Tequila.”

Yes, the frozen Margarita that dominated the 1970s and ’80s is no longer Chili’s most prominent version. Today that title goes to the Presidente Margarita® — always with all those rights reserved, don’t you dare steal that name — that was first introduced on October 11, 1994, and which recently celebrated its 23rd birthday with much ceremony.

For the Presidente we can thank Doug Brooks, who started his Chili’s career as one of the so-called “hamburger hippies” at the original location in 1978. By 1994 he had become one of Brinker’s longest-standing employees (and was on his way to eventually becoming president and CEO of the company) when he took his team down to Cancun for a management meeting. One night they decided to have a little contest to see who could create the best Margarita.

One, dubbed “The Presidente,” was an immediate hit among those in attendance. Brooks quickly added it to menus back home. Now the best-selling cocktail at all of the chain’s 1,606 locations, Chili’s “top-tier Margarita” is made with Sauza Conmemorativo Tequila, Patrón Citrónge Premium Orange Liqueur, and Presidente Brandy. The latter is solera-aged in white oak, and is reportedly the best-selling spirit in all of Mexico.

“It’s what gives the drink layers of flavor and dimension,” says Sara Fasolino, the chain’s chief spirits sommelier, a job you probably didn’t know existed.

Like all of Chili’s Margaritas, the Presidente includes the house Sweet & Sour, a proprietary mix they won’t divulge the ingredients of. I am told from former employees that it includes lime juice, simple syrup, and, unexpectedly, a little raw egg white to aid in creating a foaming sensation. (“The mix is the key to a great Margarita,” Provost thinks.)

The Presidente is so wildly popular, especially on $5 Thursdays, that two years back the chain started dispensing it completely via a draught system. Each location makes a fresh batch every day to fill the keg-like vessel that holds it.

“Many of our long term bartenders were nervous about it. This is a drink that at it’s best is made from scratch,” Provost says. “But guests have loved the switch to on-tap. It really speeds up their ability to get drinks.”

The Presidente Margarita

The Presidente Margarita

Once dispensed, the 240-calorie drink is hand-shaken exactly 25 times as the server walks it to your table. It is then poured into a salt-rimmed, lime-garnished, ice-filled, blue-lipped, handblown glass. The plastic blue shaker (featuring a Presidente logo) that has previously been shaken exactly 25 times contains 5.25 ounces. The glass holds three. Thus, a little extra is left at your table to top you off later.

“The Presidente Margarita’s unique taste and fun, head-turning presentation is why guests absolutely love this drink,” Edithann Ramey, then-vice president of marketing for Chili’s Grill & Bar, said while celebrating the Presidente’s 21st birthday in 2015.

Of course, most Chili’s today have at least a dozen different margaritas variants, depending on your location. These are created by an innovation team that releases new, limited-time offerings every 90 days, like the current Black Barrel Cherry Margarita.

“We’re continually looking at how to push the edge of the Margarita,” Provost says.

In its “Signature” Margaritas section you’ll find the Presidente Margarita, Patron Margarita, and El Jimador Fresca Margarita, which is served in a pint glass. Move to the “Premium” Margaritas section and you can opt for choices like the Tropical Sunrise Margarita, made with Midori Melon Liqueur and pineapple juice. There’s the Tito’s Vodkarita and also the unfortunate Caribbean Margaritas section, comprised of Daiquiris in disguise. These include the Reggae Sunsplash, made with Bacardi and mango juice, and the Jamaican Paradise, a mess of “Caribbean” rum, tequila, Midori, blue curaçao, and the ever-present Sweet & Sour mix.

Chili’s now has so many varieties of Margaritas, so much tequila and triple sec flowing like spring water, that in 2011 some Colorado children, one as young as 19 months, were accidentally served frozen strawberry Margaritas in their sippy cups.

“She’s like, ‘I don’t feel really good,’” noted the 19-month-old’s mother, Pam Bruenning. “I kind of just dismissed it. She’s like, ‘I really don’t feel good, this drink tastes really bad.’ I picked it up and drank it and it was just loaded with tequila.”

For adults who aren’t lightweights, though, feel free to try them all, as my fellow writer Nick Hines did back in April. With most Chili’s offering two-for-one drink specials during happy hour, that’s only six rounds.

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In 2010 Dallas Magazine ranked the opening of Chili’s as the 20th most important moment in the city’s entire history. I feel like Chili’s was probably robbed.

Believe it or not, there are no Chili’s in New York City, not even in Times Square, and certainly not in Brooklyn where I live, where I’m more likely to get my agave fix at high-brow Mexican spots like Leyenda, Alta Calidad, and Claro. For those in my boat, without a Chili’s in sight, you can turn your home into a Grill and Bar by making your own Presidente.

Chili's RTD Margarita Pouches

In 2013 Chili’s introduced 6.5 percent ABV “On The Rocks” Margaritas RTDs. They came in “convenient” 1.75 liter and 3 liter stand-up gusset pouches with built-in tap dispensers. Though the product won Gold at San Diego’s ECRM Global Wine, Spirits and Beer Show in 2013, it is sadly no longer available.

Fortunately, the internet is full of “hacks” for making your own chain restaurant cocktail. There’s even an entire Blogspot site devoted to Chili’s Margarita recipes (though it hasn’t been updated since 2014, alas). I decided to give it a try.

I usually juice my own limes when I make Margaritas at home, so I was happy to find I wouldn’t need to do that here. Sadly, I don’t have a plastic blue shaker, nor a cheesy blue-rimmed Martini glass — but I could have purchased both for cheap from countless eBay sellers who have filched them over the years.

Not wanting to support a Chili’s black market, I instead used the classy yuppie barware someone got me off my wedding registry. I shook exactly 25 times and poured the drink into an ice-filled cocktail glass that I’d kept chilling in my freezer at all times. It was rimmed with some snobby salt flakes I had.

The drink was … sweet. Whoa. Sweeter than I recall. Maybe it was the atmosphere. Maybe airline terminals mute your tastebuds. Maybe I didn’t get the Sweet & Sour mix right. Or maybe it was the mere fact I didn’t pair my homemade Presidente with some skillet queso, something the internet will also teach you to hack. Whatever the case, I think I’ll stick to having my Chili’s Margaritas at Chili’s from now on.

“When I was hired they told me this factoid,” Provost said at the end of our phone call. “So you have the population of Mexico, the No. 1 consumer of tequila. The U.S., we’re No. 2. Well, if Chili’s customers formed their own country, we would be the third-largest consumer of tequila in the entire world. All because of our Margarita.”

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