Even though it’s that time of year when you should really be thinking “Paloma”, odds are good right now that you’ve got Margaritas on your mind. And really, who can blame you?
Rightly or wrongly, it’s the tequila, triple sec, fresh lime, and simple syrup that most Canadians, Americans, and Cascadians reach for to kickstart Cinco de Mayo. (Or, as former CTV sportscaster Karen Thomson once adorably called it mid-broadcast, Cinco de Drinko). Rightly or wrongly (which is to say mostly wrongly), we assume that most Mexicans love a great Margarita as much as they love May 5.
As tackled in a previous Liquor Nerd column, Mexico isn’t exactly all in on Cinco de Mayo. Like the drunkenly debauched celebration known on these shores as St. Paddy’s Day, Cinco de Mayo is largely an American construct.
Just as almost no one in Ireland heads off to work, the pub, or a soccer match looking like a green-fever-dream cross between Lubdan the Leprechaun and the Lucky Charms mascot on March 17, Mexicans don’t dress up like Pancho Villa for May 5.
In theory, the day is meant to celebrate a Mexican Army victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in the 1800s. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that North American liquor purveyors—take a bow Jose Cuervo!—began marketing May 5 as a great excuse to load up on nacho chips, salsa, burritos, and bandoleer gun belts accessorized by a flying-saucer-size sombrero.
A big part of that campaign was pushing the idea that the Margarita was Mexico’s national drink, that being understandable because it packs more of an instant-buzz punch than a Paloma, the beer-and-grapefruit-pop cocktail favoured by four out of five Mexican nationals.
But we’re getting a little off topic here.
Your ninth-favourite Liquor Nerd recently spent a couple of weeks in Mexico, first in Mexico City, and then on the coast in Oaxaca. There’s no sense pretending otherwise—many Margaritas were consumed, some of them traditional, others punched up with hibiscus or chipotle-infused syrups. But, at first for a little variety, and then later because they were so goddamn good, Rum Horchatas eventually became the daily go-to.
Hold off on the rum, and you’ve got an ancient drink meant for everyone when you reach for the horchata. Ubiquitous in Mexico, where it starts with a base of rice, the beverage dates back to 2400 B.C. in North Africa. Before the Romans arrived to ruin everything, the ancient Egyptians were grinding up tiger nuts and mixing that with sugar to make a cooling drink they called horchata de chufa. (Before getting your Wildlife Federation-issue panties in a bunch, tiger nuts grow tuber-like under the ground, as opposed to swinging in a sack on wild male African tigers).
The Moors eventually brought horchata to Spain, after which it spread to Mexico through colonization. Because tiger nuts weren’t exactly readily available at the local mercado in Chiapas, Chihuahua, Tabasco, or Tlaxcala, a little improvisation was required.
Rice proved a suitable substitute for the base, with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar—and even hibiscus and marigold—creating a drink that’s now enjoyed everywhere from ice-cream parlours to taquerias to cocktail bars.
As with most culinary creations, the Internet has demystified horchata to where making it at home doesn’t require a degree from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. Start with a cup of long-grain rice that’s been coarsely ground with four cups of water in a blender. Soak for three hours, puree until smooth in batches, and then strain through a cheesecloth or fine sieve. Mix in a half-cup of sugar, and a tablespoon of cinnamon (or a broken cinnamon stick), pour into a glass, and then grab the rum.
Easy right? Well the answer to that is both “yes”, and “no”. For whatever reason—and no matter which of the endless horchata recipes found on Google you try—the results are often kind of chalky. (Google “nut milk bag”, get your credit card ready, and you might be on your way to solving that particular problem. Or, you know, accept the fact that horchata often tastes chalky no matter who’s making it at home.)
You can also cheat.
Determined to maximize time drinking horchata in Mexico instead of making it, your resident Liquor Nerd found a base mix in the local supermarket where you add milk to three tablespoons of syrup. Do that, and listo (which, according to Google translate, is Spanish for voila), you’ve got a horchata that’s nearly as great as what you’ll end up with at El Vilsito in Mexico City. Or Sal y Limón on Kingsway.
Not headed to Mexico anytime soon, and certainly not before May 5? There’s an amazing Mexican-themed store in the 3300-block Kingsway called Los Guerreros, and among the products they carry is imported B&B horchata concentrate.
Add three tablespoons to a glass, fill with milk, dust with cinnamon, and then get busy with the rum bottle, and—sorry Margaritaville—you’re totally primed to make the most of Cinco de Mayo. Or, if you prefer, Cinco de Drinko.