Cinco de Mayo: Cocteles Mexicanos

cinco de mayo cocktails
Cinco de Mayo: Cocteles Mexicanos
This Cinco de Mayo, skip the margarita and try one of these delicious tequila cocktails.

Cinco de Mayo is, like Saint Patrick’s Day, a holiday with significant history in its native country that Americans have chosen to appropriate mainly as an excuse to drink themed beverages. This is OK; while it may be a little crass, it at least is a celebration of another culture and people, and when it comes to booze the good people of Mexico have long been overlooked. Tequila is too often relegated to shots, or acting as the base of many a bad, oversweet, sour-mix-based margarita. We’re going to show you three alternatives.

Both tequila, and its smoky forerunner mezcal are made by fermenting the agave plant, a cactus-like desert-dweller that’s actually pretty closely related to asparagus. It’s naturally sweet and its nectar can be easily turned into a tasty syrup. It’s that same sugar that can be broken down and converted into alcohol by yeast. Once distilled, the resulting liquor is vegetal, nuanced, and more versatile in cocktails than its often given credit for.

Good tequila is made from 100% blue agave nectar.  Bad tequila, which you should generally avoid, is called Mixto tequila and contains no less than 51% blue agave sugars, but will also contain other fermentable sugars. There are very nice 100% tequilas available for well under twenty bucks, especially in the Blanco version, which is aged less than two months. Joven tequila is just Blanco with caramel color added. Reposado tequila has been aged more than two months, but less than a year, in oak barrels. It gets some woody depth and is, generally speaking, my favorite kind of tequila for mixing. Anejo tequila is aged a minimum of one year, and Extra Anejo, is aged for more than three years. Unless you’re wealthy, I’d keep Anejos or Extras aside for sipping.

Tequila is technically a type of mezcal, but these days the two words mean different liquors. Like tequila, mezcal is made from the core of an agave plant – the maguey in this case – but unlike tequila the plant cores are roasted underground for three days, giving them (and the resulting liquor) a characteristic smoked flavor. We won’t be using mezcal much today, though it does show up to great effect in one of our recipes. Mezcal’s made something of a comeback lately, and good versions can be found in most liquor stores. For cocktailing, an unaged (white or Dorado) or barely aged (Reposado) mezcal is fine. My current favorite, Ilegal, uses the term Joven instead of Dorado.

Now that we know our tequila history, we’re ready to celebrate Cinco de Mayo without a margarita in sight. Let’s make some drinks!

cinco de mayo cocktail smoked glass

Smoked Glass 

I acquired some blanco tequila recently, and I decided to try it out by making a simple cocktail that would let the agave flavor shine through. To that end, what we have here is basically a tequila Martini, though I’ve added a splash of mezcal for smokiness, and instead of my usual orange bitters I’ve gone with some nice bacon-infused aromatics from Bitters Old Men.

This is a really elegant sipping drink. It starts out light and almost sweet on the tongue, and then transfers into a long, smooth, smoky finish. The bitters really, really work here – they complement the tequila and mezcal perfectly. I strongly recommend picking up a bottle.

As my wife said about this cocktail: it’s got “brown drink” complexity despite being made entirely with clear ingredients.

Combine all ingredients in a pint glass over ice and stir thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.

cinco de mayo cocktail el beso robado

El Beso Robado

This one’s an original, and I’m pretty pleased with it. You wouldn’t think that the combination of vegetal tequila, sweet chocolate liqueur, and slightly medicinal Lillet Blanc would go together, but you’d be surprised just how well these ingredients work with each other. The resulting drink is smooth and decadent, delicious and well-balanced. The Chartreuse rinse can be skipped if you don’t have any, but it lends depth to the cocktail.

Rinse a cocktail coupe with Chartreuse and discard the excess. Combine other ingredients in a pint glass over ice and stir thoroughly. Strain into the cocktail coupe. Garnish with an orange twist.

cinco de mayo cocktails

23 Jump Street

In the “not real close to Mexico” department … I had one of these in Paris this past summer, at Bar Le Forum, which is a terrific cocktail stop in the 8th arrondissement. It’s a great place, with a good-sized bar and lots of comfy leather seating, and if you’re ever in the city, you should stop by.

This recipe is approximate since I don’t know their measurements, but I think it turned out very well! Don’t underestimate the grapefruit twist on this one. It really has an impact on the drink.

Combine all ingredients in a pint glass over ice and stir thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.

Christopher Buecheler is a novelist, a web developer, an award-winning amateur mixologist, a brewer, a guitarist, a drummer, and an NBA enthusiast. He lives a semi-nomadic life with his wife and two cats, currently residing in Providence, RI. You can learn more at his website,


  • Reply May 2, 2014


    Cinco de Mayo is not a prominent holiday in Mexico. It commemorates the defeat of the French by the (much less equipped) Mexican Army in Puebla back in 1862. Some historians argue that the French invasion was ultimately designed to aid the Confederacy and break up the Union. With that in mind, and given that the Battle was the last time any country in the Americas has been invaded by a European force, the date was pushed by chicano communities in the American West in the 40s as a way to celebrate Mexicans’ presence in and contribution to their U.S. communities. You’re making it sound like U.S. ignorance and cultural imperialism has cheapened this important day for Mexicans, but the battle was arguably more important for Americans than for Mexicans. And again, Mexicans in Mexico don’t care about cinco de mayo, unless you’re in Puebla, in which case you have a huge party that basically looks like it does here. Needless commercialization is true for a lot of our holidays, but I would say that it’s not true here. It’s been commercialized, for sure, but in Dallas, for instance, there’s a parade and more meaningful celebrations, as well.
    Thanks for the drink recommendations, though, and kudos for including mescal! My friends hate it at first, and then they start to like it. Whether that’s because of taste or inebriation, I don’t know…

    • Fair enough, but let’s not pretend like the majority of Americans who head out to their local Mexican place on May 5th to pound cheap margaritas (often while wearing horrible ‘Mexican’ clothing — giant sombreros and other nonsense) are doing anything other than cultural appropriation. 99.9% of them couldn’t tell you what the celebration is about, and I bet about 80% of them would get it confused with Dia de Los Muertos. 🙂

      That said, I probably should’ve included a graf on what Cinco de Mayo is actually all about, rather than a single snarky sentence about our culture’s tendency to grab any excuse to add a theme to its binge-drinking.

  • Reply May 2, 2014

    Pucha Loca

    Nice article, just some minor correction, since “cócteles” is plural the correct phrase would be “cócteles mexicanos”. And at least in the places where I have been in Mexico it is more common to say “cocteles” without the diacritical mark.

  • […] discussed one Mexican holiday in this column before: Cinco de Mayo. That article somewhat casually dismisses the cultural appropriation involved with American […]

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