Which came first—tequila or the margarita?
Can you remember which you tried first when you came of age? Was it a shot of tequila, or that salt-rimmed concoction with which the Mexican elixir will forever be associated?
As I was talking with Jocelyn Harrison, the manager of Agave restaurant and bar in Lewes, I started to wonder if I was really ready for Cinco de Mayo this year. Although super-premium tequilas—that potent spirit of the blue agave cactus—are all the rage (and she stocks them for those who want the bartenders to hit them with their best shots), Harrison shares this one truth: “Ninety percent of the tequila we sell is in margaritas. It’s usually on the rocks—we don’t use a mix, just hand-squeezed juice.”
I began drinking margaritas before I did tequila shots. They were the frozen kind, very good to combat the heat of Arizona where I was living at the time. A few colleagues were into Palomas—tequila and grapefruit soda—and they made an impression as well.
But there are other Mexican-made spirits to drink on May 5. One is mescal or mezcal, which is similar to tequila and made from the maquey plant, a type of agave. It’s available in most liquor stores.
“We don’t sell a lot of it,” Harrison says, “but people who like it tend to be Scotch drinkers because it’s smoky and earthy.” Another form of cactus spirit is pulque—a bit rougher the one time I tried it in Mexico City, but not sold often in the United States.
Then, there are the flavored tequilas. “The Patron XO Café flies off the shelves,” says Frank Pagliaro of Frank’s Union Wine Mart in Wilmington. The Gran Centenario Hibiscus is also a crowd-pleaser.
For those not enamored with cactus spirits, there are a number of brandies, including the popular Fundador. Some Mexican brandies are made using the sherry-style solera system where new brandy is gradually blended into aged brandies.
Finally, there is that luscious coffee liqueur, Kahlua, which is now sold in a variety of flavors. Of course, the classic cocktail using Kahlua is a black Russian, a simple mixture of Kahlua and vodka in your favorite proportions over ice. An orange, lime or lemon peel or slice garnish is optional.
Next time you’re out, issue a challenge to your bartender. Say: “I want a truly all-Mexican cocktail for Cinco de Mayo. What can you whip up using tequila—flavored or straight—and Kahlua?”
Tip according to cleverness.