Cinco de Mayo is a gringo holiday anyway, so I'm not going to judge you if you choose to celebrate with a frozen margarita and a plate of cheesy nachos. But I am here to tell you that you can do better—much, much better. Here's how to drink Mexican in style.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Limepocalypse be damned, it's time to raise a glass to our neighbors south of the border!
The tequila agave photographed by Kurt Stüber.
Legally, however, tequila can only be made with blue agave in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Meanwhile, mescal can be made from up to 30 different kinds of agave, in 8 different states, only 3 of which (Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas) overlap with tequila territory. And the two drinks' production processes are quite different, with the particular way the plant's core is cooked giving mescal a much earthier, smokier flavor profile.
But forget the technical differences: the main thing you need to know is that mescal is what the cool kids in D.F. are all drinking right now, and tequila is most definitely not.
Lesley Tellez, an expat whose tour company, Eat Mexico, runs a legendary crawl around Mexico City's late-night taquerias and mezcalerias, explains that as the city's mescal trend keeps growing, some people are making cocktails with it—"but the real, true mescal fans do not put anything in their mescal. And I agree with them—you want to taste the agave."
Minimalism is the key word here. Forget salted rims, lime wedges, and the rest. When I ask Tellez how to serve a shot of mescal, her instructions are simple and precise: "Not on the rocks. Not cold. Just pour it into a glass and sip it."
Photo by Lesley Tellez, who recommends accompanying your mescal with chili salt-sprinkled orange slices.
Tellez's current favorite mescal is made from wild agave in the small town of Zumpahuacán, just outside of Mexico City, meaning that it is not technically a mescal. No matter, she says: "It's a little floral. Not overly smoky. And this will sound strange but it smells like fresh rainfall to me. It's stunning."
For those of us who aren't in Mexico City, Tellez recommends the more widely distributed Pierde Almas. The maestro mezcalillero Jonathan Barbieri is an American artist who moved to a hilltop village in Oaxaca in the 1980s and started making traditional, small-batch mescal from a variety of different agave—some wild and others not, depending on the season. "The flavors of each variety are subtly different," Tellez, "and they're all really good."
For those of you who cannot accept that it is possible to celebrate Cinco de Mayo without tequila, Tellez does have an upgrade for your fratty Tequila Slammer or Sunrise. Do as the Mexicans do on their Independence Day (September 16), and drink a bandera.
A bandera, photographed by Lesley Tellez.
This 3-shot cocktail represents the colors of the Mexican flag: you simply line up a shot glass of lime juice for the green, a shot glass of tequila for the white, and a shot glass of sangrita, a spicy juice blend, for the red, then sip (not shoot!) them in order. Repeat as necessary.
"It's very refreshing," promises Lesley Tellez, who also shared her recipe for homemade sangrita, borrowed from her friend Carlos Rodriguez.
1 liter (about 4 cups) orange juice
1 liter (about 4 cups) tomato juice
1 oz. fresh lime juice
4 teaspoons Tajín or powdered chile piquín
1 glug Maggi sauce or soy sauce
2 glugs Tabasco or similar hot sauce
Pour everything in a blender jar and blend until well-combined. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your own taste—you can add more orange or lime juice, or make it spicier by adding more hot sauce. Pour into a pitcher and serve in small shot glasses at room temperature, to accompany tequila.
Both the bandera and a straight mescal are great evening drinks, made for sipping and savoring over conversation. If, however, the sun is shining and you are in the market for something fruity and refreshing, this sweet and sour Guadalajaran specialty, named after the clay bowl in which it is typically served, should hit the spot.
Measurements are flexible, but drinking it through a straw is mandatory. Here's a recipe to start you off:
A shot or two of tequila
Lots of slices of different citrus fruits (orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit)
Lots of ice
Squirt (grapefruit soda)
Sparkling water (optional)
Put the ice and fruit slices in your clay cazuela (or equivalent—for those of us trying to recreate this north of the border, a jumbo margarita glass would work well). Add the tequila, and then fill with Squirt, or a mixture of Squirt and sparkling water, as you prefer. Use a straw to stir, and then sip.
Those of you who prefer beer to spirits need not fret: "chela" (slang for cerveza) cocktails are also a Mexican favorite.
You've perhaps heard of the Michelada, which is something like a Bloody Mary, except with beer instead of vodka. It is a great drink, to be sure, but my sources in Mexico City report that a variation that includes gummy bears (gomis) takes the humble beertail to an entirely new level.
"The Gomichela is not very pleasing to the eye," admits María García Holley of Mexico City's LabPLC, "but it is exceptionally good."
The more she told me about the drink, the worse it sounded:
The spicy beer absorbs the sugar of the gummy bears and it leaves kind of a membrane on the foam which is super gross and makes really big and strong bubbles. It's like when you swim in a clean pool after putting sunblock on and you see it afterwards floating on the water. The more I think about it, the less I can believe that this is actually super popular.
Meanwhile, apparently, the spicy beer-soaked gummy bears sink to the bottom, and can be consumed as a sort of chaser. Yum.
Nonetheless, the Gomichela really is ridiculously popular in Mexico City (to the extent that the government has even issued warnings about it), so maybe, somehow, this unlikely combination actually works.
Again, there are a lot of possible variations—some people add Clamato juice or even lemon soda—but here's a basic recipe for those of you brave enough to try this at home:
Beer (a large Corona would do the job)
A splash of soy sauce or Maggi
A splash of Worcestershire sauce
Lime juice to taste (1 or 2 per large glass)
Chili powder to taste
A few pieces of your favorite gummy candy
A skewer, a frosted glass, and a mixing bowl
Mix a tablespoon of chili powder with the various sauces in your mixing bowl (some people add seasoning salt or Tabasco sauce here, too). It should be acidic, spicy, and salty, with something of the consistency and look of strawberry sauce.
Squeeze one or two limes into your frosted glass, rubbing the spent fruit around the rim.
Throw three or four of your gummy bears into the mixing bowl to coat them in the reddish spicy goop, and then drop them in the bottom of your glass. Thread three more gummy candies on a skewer and use a spoon or brush to coat them in the sauce mix. This will act as a stirrer. Finally, use the rest of the sauce to spread around the inner rim of your glass, focusing on the lip.
Dump the beer into the glass, lay the skewered bears over top, and take a step back to admire the foamy monstrosity you have created. Salud!
Share your Gomichela experiences, your tequila regrets, and your mescal recommendations in the comments, and let me know what you'll be drinking at your Cinco de Mayo party (canned pulque, anyone?)...
A huge thanks to my advisers on all things delicious, awesome, and Mexican: Lesley Tellez, who is working on a cookbook of Mexico City street food due out this time next year and who blogs about her eating and drinking adventures here; and Fernanda Villaseñor (a Cazuela fan) and María García Holley (a proud Gomichela admirer) of Mexico City's new department of civic innovation, the inspiring Laboratorio Para la Ciudad.