Cinco de Mayo. It's truly the ultimate American holiday. After all, where else but Mexico would people use a relatively obscure battle between the French and Mexican armies in 1862 as an excuse to down margaritas by the pitcher-full?
The margarita is by far the most popular tequila drink in the country, and is the special everyone demands when they hit the bars on Cinco de Mayo. But just as there's far more than one French defeat in the history books, there's far more than one way to drink in Mexican culture. Here are a few to try out this May 5th.
The Tamarind Margarita
Every barfly has had the standard margarita, and the various strawberry, mango or coconut-flavored concoctions tend to be sugar bombs with hangover written all over them. For a crowd looking for something familiar, but more deeply rooted in traditional Mexican foods, a tamarind margarita delivers. Tamarind is an extremely acidic fruit common to Mexican cuisine, and it adds a nicely tart body to a margarita, balancing out the sweetness most people have come to expect from the drink. The recipe below is good for a pitcher-full.
• 4 ounces unsweetened tamarind pulp (available at most well-stocked grocery stores in the “ethnic foods” aisle)
• Simple syrup (½ cup sugar and ½ cup water combined – heat slightly if you have trouble getting it to dissolve)
• 1 cup tequila (a good blanco or reposado like Don Julio or Herradura is best)
• 1 cup lime juice
Combine the tamarind pulp and 2 ½ cups boiling water together in a bowl and let stand 15 minutes to dissolve. Break up larger chunks with a fork to combine if necessary. Strain the mixture through a sieve and reserve the liquid. Then combine the tamarind liquid, simple syrup, tequila and juice in a pitcher and mix well. Refrigerate and serve in tall glasses, or margarita glasses if you have them. Otherwise, if you prefer a blended margarita combine in a blender with ice in batches until it reaches the desired slushy consistency.
Maybe sweet isn't your thing. Or maybe it's important to get an early start to Cinco de Mayo. Either way, a margarita just doesn't work so well with a breakfast burrito. That's where the sangrita comes in. Traditionally used as a chaser to a shot of tequila, it also works as a cocktail and is a more balanced breakfast than Lucky Charms ever could dream of being. Spicy, sweet, and with enough kick to take care of last night's hangover and possibly the one you're about to start working on, it's the breakfast of champions.
• 2 cups orange juice
• 1 tablespoon grenadine
• ¼ teaspoon chili powder
• 1 cup tomato juice
• 3 teaspoons salt
• 2 ounces tequila (an unaged blanco tequila like El Jimador is a bargain and works best here, as the smoky and more complex flavors of aged tequilas are completely masked by the spices)
• Hot sauce to taste
Pour the tequila into a tall glass over ice. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Have a few of these with and some steak and eggs and you'll be ready for whatever the day, or French cavalry, might throw at you.
With its somewhat harsh smoky flavor, mezcal will never be as big as tequila. Traditionally drunken straight with a side of ground fried larva mixed with chili peppers, salt and lime, mezcal can be an acquired taste to say the least. But in the right cocktail it provides a complex mix of tastes that can balance sweet and sour and smooth the way for a wide range of ingredients. It's a great nightcap – especially in areas that haven't quite been hit with summer heat as of yet.
• 1 dash Angostura bitters
• ¾ ounce Mezcal (Scorpion and Monte Alban are good reasonably priced mezcals to start with)
• ½ ounce sweet vermouth
• 1 ounce Campari
• 1 ½ ounce tequila (a good reposado is important here, as a blanco won't stand up to the other flavors in the cocktail – Tres Agaves Reposado seems to work especially well in this drink)
Add all ingredients, except for the bitters, in order over ice in a shaker. Shake to combine, then strain into a lowball glass filled with a few ice cubes. Add the bitters on top, then kick back and watch the last hours of Cinco de Mayo drift by in a haze.