On Cinco de Mayo, consider a few margarita alternatives.
The other day, at loose ends in Midtown at the tenebrous end of happy hour, I larked into an averagely bad, decently fun Tex-Mex restaurant in the Theater District. The barman presented the drinks menu. The drinks menu presented an assault, its plastic cover a window onto a plane of existence where 29 distinct margarita flavors live, or at least refuse to die.
Roughly a third of these flavors are approved by good usage, especially if the imbiber is carrying a good fake ID inside her Forever 21 pocketbook. It is usually not entirely vile to supplement the basic margarita recipe—tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice—with suggestions of mango, pineapple, strawberry, raspberry, guava, papaya, grapefruit, orange …. A few more flavors on the list—peach, passion fruit, melon, pomegranate—wore an air of modest plausibility; a few more yet—coconut, kiwi, cinnamon—were not operatically deranged. But the eye also caught sight of alternatives that convulsed the body and chilled the soul—banana and walnut and blueberry and worse. I considered inquiring as to what exactly went into a "spicy diablo" margarita; perhaps, after all, it was something as welcome as muddled jalapeño. Then I decided that any establishment willing to defile a Margarita with butterscotch syrup was not one to ask too many nosy questions of.
Thursday is Cinco de Mayo, the celebration of the 149th anniversary of Mexico's defeat of France at the Battle of Puebla and an occasion to approach the native spirit of our southern neighbor once more, perhaps with a wary hand. Oh, tequila! Ay, caramba! Far too many people can and do share far too many stories regarding the youthful overindulgences that turned them off the liquor. Words common to these narratives include "Cuervo" and "college." A bartender friend recently failed to recall the night she walked into a bar in a university town in a prairie province; yes, prairie—the setting was a segment of Canada where 18-year-olds are allowed to use their best judgment when attending dollar-shots nights. She blithely threw down a $50. She made a lot of friends. She awoke much later in a room she'd never seen before where 30 strangers lay like figures in a desecrated Breughel. This paper seeks to explore their wretchedness. What exactly did these people do to themselves? Does their misery in fact reflect tequila's true glory? And how can you avoid their miserable fate?
People who take liquor seriously invariably refer to tequila's "vegetal character." Pre-originated by the Aztecs as pulque, brought along by the conquistadors as mescal, and ultimately developed by a German botanist around 1890, tequila is distilled from the sap of the heart of the blue agave plants of Jalisco, Mexico. (Any other of the 400 kinds of agave plant will yield mescal; tequila is to mescal as cognac is to brandy.) Agave is a succulent, and even the most dispiriting spirit made from it has a lot of body as compared with, say, all but the very best vodkas. Tequila has heft, and the fact that margaritas do well with the addition of salt says nothing unsavory about its character. With but a touch of celery bitters and a squirt of tabasco, a decent tequila roughly qualifies as a light snack.
In any form, it tends to create a false sense of satiety and to crowd out room for nutritive solids. A sipping drink, it is the curse of the slamming classes. Presenting the impression of sticking to the ribs, the liquor leads to the unsticking of all kinds of things in and near the thoracic cavity. On Thursday, many amateurs, having guzzled the stuff as defiled by sugary margarita mix, will be passing out well before 11. (A few others, having mixed it with, like, Red Bull, will also be passing out before 11, effectively, but still walking around and saying things for several hours, only a slight improvement.) There is a better way! The brightest bartender I know set me up with a superior margarita, adding only quality stuff—Cointreau, fresh lime juice, a splash of grapefruit juice, a dash of Habanero sauce, and a brisk drizzle of simple syrup.
But why limit yourself to this wild daisy of a drink? Just as Cinco de Mayo is a holiday celebrated with greater fervor on this side of the Rio Grande, the margarita is an American idea of a Mexican elixir. This is not to say that it's inauthentic, only that there's no reason to limit your tequila-delivery-device options on account of "tradition." This May 5th, please consider one of the following alternatives, just not all of them at once, por favor.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Margaritas by Brand X Photos.