Mexico, 1920s (or earlier)
No, not sangria. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good sangria (I’ll share my recipe eventually). Sangrita (“little blood”) is a traditional Mexican side-shot to be sipped alongside tequila. Not slammed back to wash down the taste of bad hooch – but to be savored, taking turns back and forth between the tequila and the sangrita. The flavors leapfrog each other, making each sip taste better than the one before.
You might see some less-than-passionate bartenders passing off their house Bloody Mary mix as sangrita. Not the same thing at all. You might also see a lot of recipes elsewhere that use tomato juice. Although this is the standard in Mexico City, sangrita purists outside that area scoff at such an adulteration. As far as I can tell, sangrita originated in Jalisco as the leftover juice from a bag of fruit salad bought from a street vendor. You may have seen it (hopefully you’ve enjoyed it) – a plastic bag full of mango, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, jicama… just about any mix of fresh, seasonal fruit doused with a good squeeze of lime juice, a dusting of chili powder and a sprinkle of salt. Someone, somewhere discovered that the spicy, sweet, tart, savory juice that collects in the bottom of the bag goes great with a shot of tequila. Muchas gracias, anonymous wonderful person.
At the very minimum, a basic sangrita would be a blend of orange juice and lime juice with grenadine (homemade, please) and chili powder (a mix of powdered dried chilis, not chili seasoning mix). Recently, as the availability of artisanal sipping tequilas has risen, bartenders have come to embrace the idea of sangritas, even making custom recipes that suit a particular tequila brand. The astounding and outstanding single-estate Tequila Ocho even sponsors an annual nationwide competition called “¡Viva Sangrita!” that pits bartender’s best recipes against each other, with a rowdy final event held in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail.
I asked Tomas Estes, known as “The Tequila Ambassador,” about his first experience with sangrita during his youthful adventures in Mexico. He says, “My first memory of Sangrita was in the El Camino Real Hotel in Guadalajara. In the late ’60s it was by the Sauza Tequila offices (Sauza has moved since then, but the hotel is still there). I was having a drink with my aunt Maria Elena who lived there in those days. We ordered some servings of Sauza and sangrita that arrived in large, tall “caballito” shot glasses. I remember the sangrita was quite attention-getting with its flaming red color. I tried it and did not care for it, since I am not fond of tomato juice. I came to prefer the original recipe which uses pomegranate concentrate, various freshly-squeezed citrus juices, and chili powder.”
Los Angeles bartender Cari Hah, agave champion and sangrita evangelist (alongside Jaymee Mandeville as half of “Lil Twisted”) is a passionate advocate for neat spirits served alongside a complementary non-alcoholic sip. In fact, she doesn’t limit this practice to just tequila: “I actually prefer all my spirits that way – neat with a sangrita to match whatever spirit it is.” Cari says of her first experience with sangrita, “I think the first time I ever tried a sangrita, it was a horrible one – essentially Bloody Mary mix with orange juice in it. I asked the bartender at this Mexican restaurant bar for sangrita because I had just heard of it. I wound up trying to explain it to the bartender, and finally just settled for their bottled bloody with some OJ. The first good sangrita I had was one I made myself – because no one seemed to have a real one that wasn’t tomato based! The idea of it is genius… to have a beverage that enhances and complements the flavor of beautiful tequila, but you can have as much or as little as you like.” Bonus: Cari shares her favorite sangrita recipe at the end of this article.
Here at my home bar, we have a not-so-basic piece of equipment: a vegetable juicer. My wife uses this to make healthy things like apple/carrot/beet/kale juice. And bless her heart, I may have a sip now and again. This juicer comes in handy quite often – for juicing pineapples, making fresh apple juice… all kinds of good stuff. Our house sangrita takes advantage of of this device to enhance the traditional straightforward sangrita recipe with earthy beet, tropical pineapple, spicy ginger, and floral apple.
In a pinch, you may be able to buy pre-made juice from a health food store and use it in this recipe. Fresh is always the best flavor – avoid substituting pasteurized, big-jug, commercial juices here. Look for dried chilis in the Mexican section of your grocery store, or at a Mexican market if you have one nearby. The recipe below will make about five ounces of sangrita – use it as a base template and multiply as necessary. When batching, hold back a bit on the chili powder, salt, and ginger juice – add extra a little at a time until it tastes balanced to you. Next time you have a Mexican-themed party at home, try a batch of pre-made sangrita and some great sipping tequilas alongside your Margaritas.
Hardware: Vegetable juicer, Citrus juicer, Spice/coffee grinder, Electric blender, Cheesecloth, Fine-mesh strainer, Knife, Bottle or jar for storage
Glassware: shot glasses (the tall “caballito” style is traditional)
Fresh produce: 2 Fuji Apples, 2 Valencia (or Navel) Oranges, 2 Limes, 1 Beet, 1 Pineapple, Ginger
Accents: Grenadine, Dried chilis (New Mexico, Ancho, and/or California chilis), Salt
In a warm, dry frying pan, lightly toast a few dried chilis. Remove the stems, chop roughly, and add to a clean spice (or coffee) grinder. Pulverize to an even, fine consistency. Keep stored in an airtight container.
Using your preferred tool, squeeze the orange and lime juices into separate containers. Prepare all the rest of the produce: stem, peel, and core the pineapple, stem and scrub the beets. Peeling the ginger isn’t strictly necessary, but you can if you prefer. Slice all fruit and juice each type of fruit separately, rinsing the juicer parts between fruits. Strain the pineapple juice through a damp cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer to remove the foam. Temporarily store each fruit juice in separate containers so you can adjust the recipe as needed once assembled.
In an electric blender, combine:
1 oz orange juice
1 oz lime juice
1/4 tsp chili powder
tiny pinch of salt
Blend briefly to integrate the chili powder into the juices. Add the spiced citrus juice to an airtight bottle or jar and add:
1 oz apple juice
1/2 oz pineapple juice
1/2 oz beet juice
1/8 oz ginger juice
3/4 oz grenadine
Shake well to blend. Store in the refrigerator and serve chilled. Will keep for a few days (if it lasts that long).
CARI HAH’S SANGRITA TRADICIONAL
Sycamore Den, San Diego, CA (2013)
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s generally acknowledged the ’70s and ’80s were the Dark Times of 20th-century drinkmaking. Maybe cocktail culture just wasn’t high on the priority list: America had just emerged from a decade of radical upheaval and change: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, the emergence of the psychedelic youth culture, and the best blues, soul, rock, pop, and country music ever created. The ’70s presented a new set of challenges: ending a war, firing a president, finding equality for gays and lesbians, running out of gas, and dealing with out-of-control pollution. The general question seemed to be, “so… now what?” The general answer (in the face of all this heaviness) seemed to be, “Have a Good Time.”
Drinks in the ’70s were all about stupid simplicity: Margarita (José Cuervo & Sour Mix), Rum & Coke, Screwdriver (vodka & orange juice). People didn’t go to bars for a culinary experience – they went to bars to get laid. Drinks functioned as alcohol-delivery systems to loosen libidos and, maybe, indicators of what lay ahead in the night: Margarita drinkers were partiers, Screwdriver drinkers couldn’t handle strong feelings (or flavors), Rusty Nail drinkers had fingers that smelled like an ashtray.
The original Harvey Wallbanger recipe, as promoted by Galliano, was a softer Screwdriver (that was already disappointingly limp): one ounce of vodka, six ounces of orange juice (most likely pasteurized, from concentrate) and a half-ounce float of Galliano, the herbal Italian vanilla-and-anise liqueur. Not a very interesting mix – but the seed of an idea is there.
San Diego bartender Eric Johnson is too young to have suffered the drinks of the ’70s, but he has an appreciation for “The Me Decade.” He designed the bar menu at Sycamore Den, a new hot spot in Normal Heights that celebrates the glorious awfulness of those days with diagonal wood paneling, a sunken “conversation pit,” macramé, and swag lamps. I’m convinced there’s a hidden “Dad’s rec room” somewhere on the premises with shag carpeting, a hi-fi, a bong, and a stack of vintage Swank magazines. The drinks at Sycamore Den are contemporary, though (you didn’t see too much mezcal, Suze, absinthe, or Aperol on ’70s menus)… with one exception: the Hardly Wallbanger. Johnson was curious about the original Harvey Wallbanger and couldn’t figure out what accounted for its popularity. Marketing can only go so far, you know. Johnson told me, “I definitely was loving Galliano and wanted to showcase the liqueur over the neutral spirit, vodka. I added vanilla to satisfy my sweet tooth and was thinking ‘Orange Julius’ after a couple attempts. I had the staff test it out and all were nodding or banging their heads in approval!” The Hardly Wallbanger chucks what’s bad about the original and enhances everything good – keeping its creamy orange-and-vanilla lightness, adding a subtle tartness, and shining a light on the recently-reformulated Galliano’s intriguing herbal blend.
Keep an eye on what oranges you use in this – Valencias will be sweeter, so you’ll probably want to dial down the simple syrup to a quarter-ounce. If you’re using the more common Navel oranges, stick with a half-ounce. Use real vanilla extract, not imitation vanilla flavor – even though it’s just a few drops, you’ll know the difference.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Eyedropper, Cocktail pick, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Spirit: vodka (recommended: Karlsson’s Gold, Absolut)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Galliano, Simple syrup, Seltzer (or tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree) or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino))
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange juice, Lemon juice, Vanilla extract, Orange wheel, Cherry (recommended: Filthy amarena, Luxardo maraschino)
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
1 1/2 oz vodka
1 oz Galliano
2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
3 drops vanilla extract
Shake briefly to blend and chill, then strain into a Collins glass filled about two-thirds of the way up with cracked ice. Top with:
2 oz seltzer
Add additional ice as needed. Stir lightly to blend and garnish with an orange wheel and cherry pierced on a cocktail pick. Optionally, serve with a straw.
Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco, 2008
Here’s a fun little drink that sits between worlds: sort of a sour, sort of a tiki drink, and none of the above. Good aged rum with lime and spiced syrups plus a dose of bitters sounds straight out of Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic’s, but this is from San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch, a password-protected speakeasy deep in the grubby Tenderloin. These secret-entry bars are sometimes more show than substance – startup spots trying to capture some of the magic of places like Bourbon & Branch, Please Don’t Tell, or Noble Experiment – but when done right, the barrier to entry serves a good purpose. In the neighborhood full of bums surrounding Bourbon & Branch, the tiny, 24-at-a-time, subterranean room of PDT, or the weekend AXE-effect shitshow in San Diego’s Gaslamp around Noble Experiment, a speakeasy makes good sense. It controls the experience, adds drama, and cuts down on the riff-raff.
With a perfect balance of spirit, sour, sweet, and spicy, the Rum Crawl is a sure-hit crowd-pleaser, especially for those who may not care for more spirit-forward cocktails. It’s also an opportunity to use more of that homemade Falernum – its holiday spices of ginger, clove, and allspice plus the fragrant cinnamon and Angostura bark in the Fee Brother’s once-a-year bottling of Whiskey-Barrel Aged Bitters are a perfect match for fall and winter entertaining.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Vegetable peeler
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass or coupe
Spirits: Aged rum (recommended: Appleton Estate Extra 12)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Falernum, Ginger Syrup (recommended: B.G. Reynolds’)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Whiskey-Barrel Aged Bitters (recommended: Fee Brothers), Orange twist
Chill a cocktail glass or coupe in the freezer at least ten minutes. In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
2 oz aged rum
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz falernum
1/4 oz ginger syrup
2 dashes whiskey-barrel aged bitters
Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. Pinch an orange twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Garnish with the twist laid across the surface of the drink.