Liquor Nerd: There's a surprising reason why Cinco de Mayo is all about Margaritas instead of authentic Palomas

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      If you’re a Canadian who’s done any amount of travelling abroad, chances are you’ve spent some time clearing up some cultural misconceptions. No, we don’t all live in ice caves. We aren’t all born wearing hockey skates and holding a Tim Hortons doughnut in one hand and the Tragically Hip’s Road Apples in the other. And maple syrup isn’t consumed by the litre at breakfast, lunch, and dinner—delicious as that sounds.

      As enlightened as we like to fancy ourselves on these shores—especially compared to the folks immediately south of our border—we’re not always bang-on when it comes to understanding the rest of the world. Need proof? Fine—here’s a question, inspired by the fact that Cinco de Mayo is so close you can almost taste the lamb barbacoa, queso fresco, and pickled onions: at what point did the Margarita become Mexico’s national drink? If you just answered “never”, take a deep bow for being smarter than the average liquor nerd.

      Collect double points if you’ve already mixed up a Paloma and toasted the ghost of Pancho Villa to show how clever you are.
      Confused? It’s okay because you’re anything but alone. Before we straighten things out and get to the Paloma, let’s take a look at how the Margarita and Mexico become inextricably linked in the minds of those living in the upper half of North America. Depending on which historian you’re talking to, the idea of combining tequila, triple sec, and fresh lime (simple syrup optional) was supposedly first dreamed up by Carlos “Danny” Herrera in 1938 at his Rancho La Gloria restaurant in Tijuana.

      Or, if you prefer, the recipe was invented on the shores of Acapulco in 1948 by a Dallas socialite vacationing in Mexico. Among those to whom she served her new-fangled concoction was Tommy Hilton, who promptly added it to the bar menus of his hotel chain.

      While Mexico has been a tourist destination for North Americans since the late 1800s, the industry’s boom period really kicked off with the building of beachfront mega-hotels and resorts in the 1940s and ’50s.

      What—besides sun, sand, and miniature Day of the Dead figurines—have North Americans traditionally wanted when vacationing in Mexico? The answer at happy hour, sadly and predictably, has been a drink they are familiar with. And because giving the customer what they’ve come for is never a bad business strategy, things quickly got to where you couldn’t swing a piñata stick in Mexico without hitting a Margarita-toting tourist.

      So how do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo (that’s May 5, to those of you who failed Spanish) without looking like Bud from Boise or Fred from Fort St. John? Well, first, think long and hard about who Cinco de Mayo is important to.

      Here’s another hint: just as St. Patrick’s Day is far more of a big deal in Boston than Belfast, Cinco de Mayo might be Mexican in name but it is inherently American in spirit.

      In the 1860s Californians started marking the day to celebrate a Mexican Army victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. Somewhere along the line—which is to say the mid-’80s—liquor companies began running high-profile campaigns pushing Cinco de Mayo as the most Mexican thing this side of Taco Bell, dayglo-orange nachos, and Señor Frog’s. Which is where we’re at today.

      So if you’re going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, you have to first decide whether you’re going to embrace your inner liquor nerd like a real Mexican, or someone walking around in an urban sombrero and dollar-store bandolera—printed-plastic poncho optional.

      Let’s assume you’re opting for the Margaritas like everyone living between New Mexico and the Northwest Territories. Because the drink is delicious—which is to say a classic for good reason—no one is going to judge you, at least not on these shores. The beauty of the cocktail is that it’s so easy to make—which is another way of saying you don’t have to spring for mass-produced Marg-mix when you’re ready to get busy with the shaker.

      A classic Margarita is simply fresh lime juice, orange liqueur, and tequila. No need to break out the Casa Herradura Seleccion Suprema; whether reaching for the Rehilete Papalote Reposado, Volcán de mi Tierra Cristinalo, or theEspolón Blanco, just make sure to go the 100-percent agave route. Don’t pay attention to the purists—a Margarita is better with a splash of agave or cardamom-infused simple syrup. (In the event that even sounds like too much work Volcán is currently offering ready-to-mix kits featuring a citrus-saffron-pepper syrup; check your local liquor store.)

      Now for what they’d be drinking in Mexico City if they cared about Cinco de Mayo. Cocktail culture might be taking root in pockets of Mexico today, but traditionally drinkers have opted for beer and a sipping tequila or mezcal.

      The big exception is the Paloma, which is generally considered the country’s national drink. Popular mythology has it that the Paloma was invented by Don Javier Delgado Corona at the La Capilla bar in Jalisco, Mexico. As far as the execution goes, the long cocktail couldn’t be simpler—all you need is tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda. (Go authentic with Squirt if you can find it at a Mexican grocer, Jarritos if you can’t. Or get fancy and healthy with club soda and fresh-squeezed grapefruit).

      The Paloma’s popularity can be explained by the fact that it’s cooling when the temperature is hotter than a freshly fired pistol, or when the chilate de pollo cook has gone extra-heavy on the arbol peppers.

      That’s it. The Paloma’s beauty is that it’s simple and unfussy enough that anyone can not only make one, but pretty much nail it with their first attempt.

      Don’t get why, on this side of the border, the Paloma has never been able to compete with the Margarita? That’s totally understandable, because who in Mexico—other than expat Reggie from Regina—understands the Tragically Hip, ice fishing, and bacon swimming in maple syrup?


      2 oz. tequila
      1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
      Grapefruit soda

      Add the tequila and lime juice to a glass, fill with ice, top with the soda, and stir to mix. Garnish with a lime wheel, and don’t forget the salt rim (as long as your blood pressure is under control). 

      Got a bottle of Espolòn, a lime, and a made-in-Mexico Squirt (the latter not pictured, because we couldn't find one)? No problem--get the first two and a Jarritos, and you've got a Paloma, which is what the Mexican locals drink rather than Margs.
      Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.