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!
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.
- 2 oz. Blanco Tequila (I used Hornitos)
- .75 oz. Dry Vermouth (Noilly Prat works well)
- .25 oz. Mezcal (I like Ilegal Joven)
- Dash Aromatic Bitters (Bitters Old Men Gangsta Lee’n)
Combine all ingredients in a pint glass over ice and stir thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
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.
- 1.5 oz. Reposado Tequila (Tres Agaves is a fine choice)
- .75 oz. Lillet Blanc
- .25 oz. Creme de Cacao (Hiram Walker is inexpensive and tasty)
- Dash Orange Bitters (Regans’ are great)
- Rinse Green Chartreuse
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.
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.
- 1.5 oz. Reposado Tequila (I used 1800)
- 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth (Martini is a fine choice)
- 1 oz. Bonal (or other quinquina)
- Dash Orange Bitters (Fee Brothers makes a good one)
- Dash Creole Bitters (The Bitter Truth or Peychaud’s)
Combine all ingredients in a pint glass over ice and stir thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.