Take this on faith, just for a minute.
The margarita was invented in Mexico in the 1940s, and the original orange liqueur that went into the original first pitcher was not Cointreau or triple sec, but something called Controy. A Mexican distiller launched Controy in 1933, but it was never imported commercially into the U.S.—that is, until three weeks ago, when the Houston-based company that imports Pura Vida Tequila started shipping it to distributors in a few Southwestern states (Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado). Also Louisiana and California, where the nice people at Cask in San Francisco got me the liter-size bottle you see pictured here (it cost $27).
Now, Controy is seriously popular in Mexico, where it’s cheap. And probably for the same reason, it's popular there with American tourists, who pack bottles into suitcases, and backpacks crammed with funky-smelling spring-break T-shirts, to show off back home as the REAL margarita mixer.
I first read about Controy’s imminent importation via this Chowhound thread. “Controy is now going to be available in the USA at your local liquor store!” someone wrote. Finally, that exclamation point suggested, we here in the U.S. will be able to make margaritas the way they were invented, with proper Mexican orange liqueur, and not some French import (i.e., Cointreau), margaritas like you had them on vacation in Playa del Carmen. But—here's where you can relax your faith now—is that really true?
Certainly that’s the narrative the people at Pura Vida would like you to obsess over, punctuated in Facebook updates with exclamation marks. But it turns out nobody knows precisely when or where the margarita was invented, what the original proportions were, or even who the hell Margarita was. Various creation stories argue for 1936 in Tijuana (or Puebla), 1941 in Ensenada, 1942 in Juárez, and 1948 in Acapulco (or Galveston, Texas), and not one of them ever mentions Controy. Cointreau or triple sec figures in each.
And the name “Controy”: Was it originally some Mexican distiller’s linguistic knockoff of "Cointreau," designed to be Spanish-language-friendly? It’s a mystery. Even the guy from Pura Vida I called didn't know. What’s not a mystery is that Controy’s U.S. importer is positioning the liqueur as a competitor to Citrónge, the Patrón tequila company's proprietary orange liqueur for margaritas. Christopher Novosad, the guy at Pura Vida–Controy, told me that Patrón originally worked out a deal to slap the Citrónge label on Controy, but then ended the relationship after the company opened its own orange-liqueur distillery.
Absolutely not true, says Greg Cohen, a spokesman for Patrón. For a time, he says, the company did work with a distillery that was “involved with” making Controy, but that’s it. Citrónge is its own thing, period, distinct from both Controy and Cointreau.
But how different can sweet orange liqueurs taste from one another? To find out, I tasted all three side by side, both on their own (not to be attempted by haters of high-viscosity sweet booze), and in margaritas made according to the CHOW-approved ratio of 3-2-1 (three parts tequila, two parts orange liqueur, one part lime juice). As it turns out, Controy was the cleanest-tasting of the three, though also the least interesting: a simple, one-dimensional orange-peel aroma and flavor that added a discreet perfume to its margarita.
Citrónge had a really ripe, vaguely funky fragrance, like sour oranges I once bought in a Yucatán street market and forgot about in my backpack for a couple of days (they started to rot and ferment). But it added a certain complexity to a margarita that Controy lacked—it was easily the most distinctive of the three. And Cointreau, well, it smelled and tasted like those sugar-craggy jelly candies called Orange Slices: sweet, kind of fake-y orange. My least favorite, by far.
Decided, then: I’ll go with Citrónge, even though the Emerald City–green, chunky Controy bottle will look totally cool on my bar. And hey, it comes with a story, even if the exact narrative is as murky as the identity of the Margaret who lent her name to the drink in the first place.
Photograph by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com