Mexico or London (1930s – 1940s)
No singular cocktail has more people claiming its invention than the Margarita. Seems they all want to grab some family blood from America’s most popular cocktail. And, if you ask me, America’s most abused cocktail.
But there’s some strong evidence the cocktail originated in London, of all places – as the “Picador” cocktail, a spin on the classic 2:1:1 Sour template, in a variation known as a Daisy (just a Sour with a liqueur instead of simple syrup). Funny coincidence, “margarita” is Spanish for “daisy”.
You might have to hit five or six bars and restaurants to find one that isn’t made with that god-awful sour mix, even in recipes calling themselves “Cadillac.” How hard can it be to squeeze some fresh citrus, people? Sheesh.
Many people are surprised when I tell them a Margarita (done properly) is one of my favorite cocktails. Many people are also surprised when they taste a proper one for the first time – far different from the frozen, blended version that came out of Dallas in 1971 and came to be the standard for the next forty years. With the rise of fine tequilas since 2000 or so, many bartenders have come to embrace the perfect balance of a well-crafted Margarita, and an appreciation for this fragile and misunderstood spirit. An unusual minor tweak to the standard sour template is the addition of just a teaspoon of rich simple syrup – the drink simply is not the same without it. The syrup adds body and cuts through a strange bitterness that can sometimes linger between the tequila and Cointreau, bringing perfect balance.
Done like a Sidecar, this beauty needs no Slurpee, no salt. Some prefer this one on the rocks instead of served up; Either way works. Sabor es lo primero.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass or Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Tequila (blanco or reposado – recommended: El Jimador, Espolón)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Triple sec (recommended: Cointreau)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime wheel, Kosher salt (optional)
Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.
If you choose to salt the rim, sprinkle some kosher salt on a plate and moisten either the full rim or just half with your lime wheel garnish and lightly press the glass rim into the salt. Try to avoid getting salt on the interior glass surface.
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
2 oz tequila
1 oz triple sec
3/4 oz lime juice
1 tsp rich simple syrup
Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. (As an option, serve over ice cubes in an Old Fashioned glass.) Garnish with a lime wheel.
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
Just hidden behind the floor-to-ceiling cases of Cuervo Gold is a diverse and fragile world of mezcals deserving your attention – sipping spirits on par with fine Cognac or Scotch; mixing spirits that are affordable and rewarding.
As rum is made from sugarcane (and its derivatives), as bourbon is made from corn (mostly), mezcal is made from agave. Not a cactus, not an aloe – agave is a succulent with over 200 varieties that grow from the southern US down to Colombia and Venezuela, including the Caribbean. The bulk of agaves harvested for mezcal grow in and around the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (say it “wah-HAWK-ah”). In the wild, agaves mature at around eight to twelve years, sending up a cluster of blossoms on a tall, asparagus-like stem called a quiote. Nectar-feeding bats fly from plant to plant, pollinating as they go. These pollinated flowers produce thousands of seeds, then the plants die as they regenerate scores of little baby agaves. The recent explosion of interest in mezcal and tequila has forced a situation where some producers interested in standardizing their spirits are looking to speed up the process by manually pollinating ahead of the game, cutting out the natural process. Unfortunately, this could have a long-term negative impact on agave, by reducing biodiversity and eliminating the habitat of the pollinating bats.
Before the Spanish Conquest of Mexico around 1520, natives made pulque – a thick, milky, lightly-intoxicating drink made by fermenting the sap of certain agaves. When the Spanish brought the hardware and the know-how for distillation (that they, in turn, learned from their travels to Arab countries), focus was shifted to the starchy pulp of the agave heart and the first, rough mezcals were created.
The agaves used for mezcal take between six to twelve years to mature, depending on their variety, the weather, their elevation, their soil – and like the “terroir” of fine wine, all these factors influence the final nose and flavor. Although automation has come to some mezcal producers (using harvesting machines and stainless steel autoclaves), the old ways still hold fast. When mature, cultivated or wild-growing agave plants are stripped of their leaves and dug up. Not an easy task – they can weigh as much as 220 pounds! Gentler mezcals are steam-roasted in hornos – large brick ovens. For a smokier flavor, a large pit is dug in the ground and lined with red-hot river rocks and a mix of cypress and mesquite wood for smoke, then loaded up with split agave “piñas” (as the hearts are called – they look like pineapples when cut), which are then insulated with agave leaves and straw. The insulation creates an earthen oven, and the piñas are left to roast for a few days, then dug up and ground to a pulp under a stone wheel (“tahona”) or shredded mechanically. The resulting thick liquid mush ferments in open vats for a few more days (as long as a month), and is finally distilled in alembic or pot stills – sometimes even rustic clay pot stills. You’ll usually only see “joven” (unaged) mezcal – occasionally, it’s aged for less than a year, called “reposado” (rested) or longer, called “añejo” aged.
Tequila is simply a type of mezcal, just a very tightly-controlled mezcal. Where mezcal can be made from any kind of suitable agave grown anywhere in Mexico, tequila must come from the Weber Blue agave and must come from from the state of Jalisco (or a small handful of surrounding states). Sort of like how Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France (otherwise it’s called “sparkling wine”). Typically, the Weber Blue agave hearts are roasted in hornos (no smoke like mezcals) and tequila is typically distilled longer than mezcal, making for a softer flavor – and can be sold straight from the still as “blanco” or “plata” (white or silver), aged two months to one year as “reposado” (rested), aged one to three years as “añejo” (aged), or aged beyond three years and called “extra añejo.” Aging takes place in oak barrels, usually leftover from aging bourbon or other whiskeys. Always, always make sure it says 100% agave on the label – otherwise, you’re getting that cheap mixto swill (made from part agave, part whatever). To be clear, that’s not to say all 100% agave tequilas are great (they’re not) but that should be your baseline to start.
Tequila was originally imported to the US in the late 19th century as a health tonic (still works that way, if you ask me). It wasn’t until some anonymous and wonderful person hit on the idea of making a standard “sour” cocktail with it in the 1940s that tequila began to catch our attention – and began the long, slow slide into the pop-culture tar pit it’s currently drowning in: “mixto” sold by the jug, slushy machines, and chemically green sour mix. Meanwhile, fine mezcals continued to be made in the villages of Oaxaca and enjoyed by the locals while the gringos up north choked down rotgut tequila with a dose of salt and a bite of lime to deaden the palate. It stayed that way until the 1990s, when New Mexico artist Ron Cooper visited Oaxaca, tasted these amazing spirits, and made it his mission in life to bring them to the world, creating the Del Maguey brand. Del Maguey sources mezcals from individual villages, each one with its own unique character. Following his lead, there’s been an incredible surge in handcrafted mezcals available to the rest of us – from just a handful a few years ago to over 150 brands today. Note that unlike tequila, mezcal can only be exported in individual bottles (never in bulk), so what you’re getting is an artisanal product, straight from the source.
There’s another esoteric agave spirit, bacanora – essentially just mezcal made in Sonora, so it falls outside the regulations governing true mezcal production. There’s only one brand available in the US at the moment, Cielo Rojo. Similarly, raicilla is made from agave around Puerto Vallarta, on the coast of Jalisco, and is roasted in hornos like tequila.
The first thing you’ll taste in most popular mezcals is the smoke, reminiscent of a campfire in the desert on a warm summer night. But let your palate adjust – what follows can be a long, twisting finish that goes on for miles: vegetal roasted chili peppers, sweet creamy butter, fresh tropical fruit, Dutch cocoa, hazelnuts, earthy minerality. These elements are there in good tequila, also – just softer, rounder. Mezcal is bold, wild, and invigorating.
All this love for agave helps boost the local economies in Mexico and shines a light on a fascinating culture, but it may come at a cost. I’ve already mentioned the threat to biodiversity and habitats, but there’s also a power grab coming from Mexico’s governing standards bodies that would give power to the mega-corporations that are mass-producing tequila and would eliminate the ability of small-batch producers to make a living. Even worse, some desperate and short-sighted farmers in Oaxaca have begun selling truckloads of immature agave to big-name mixto tequila producers to help satisfy their market demands – at the expense of mezcal’s future (and theirs). For more on these issues, please follow the Tequila Interchange Project and sign their petitions that come up every so often as these damaging initiatives attempt to become regulations. But in the meantime, support small, independent producers, enjoy these amazing spirits neat or mixed – and help keep this world alive.
Mezcal for enjoying neat: Del Maguey Tobala, Pierde Almas Tobaziche, Fidencio Clásico, Don Amado Plata
Mezcal for mixing: Del Maguey Vida
Tequila for enjoying neat: Tequila Ocho, Fortaleza
Tequila for mixing: Espolón, Camarena