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.
Eric Felten, in a quick-witted little book titled How's Your Drink?, recommends the Paloma, a grapefruit cooler, as the gin-and-tonic of the Latin world. There are two big ways to win big. For a more delicate mood, use tequila, lime juice, grapefruit juice, a pinch of sea salt, and club soda. (Club soda, not seltzer; you want the chalkiness.) For a fabulously indelicate mood, you mix the tequila, the lime, and the salt and top it off with grapefruit soda. Jarritos is perhaps most authentic, but Squirt is no slouch, and it is also possible to jack up Fresca with a splash of Sprite. Pro: You can drink these all day. Con: You can drink these all day.
Tequila con Sangrita
This is a grown-up's shot-and-chaser alternative also known, among people who are trying too hard, as "Tequila, Pancho Villa-style." There are two glasses before you. One bears a barrel-aged tequila—an añejo—that is as sophisticated as any single malt scotch and which glows like "scorpion honey," to steal a phrase from Tom Robbins. You would roll it around your tongue forever if it weren't for the other glass, which is filled with sangrita—"a little blood"—an elevated Bloody Mary mix sweetened with orange juice and sometimes grenadine. You sip and you chase and you savor and you linger, attempting to achieve equilibrium; at once pensive and impish, you wonder if any Cancun spring break rec rooms have adapted the beverage into a lick-slam-suck-type body shot. Perhaps they would serve the salt on the girl's clavicle and you would slurp the ambrosial tomato juice from the cup of her freckled ear ….
Again, I urge moderate pacing, lest you grow to share Kingsley Amis' incuriosity about the beverage: "I have never seen it served outside Mexico, though since drinking a good deal of it there I may not have looked very hard, I admit."
Lowry, a prolific drunk and occasional novelist, wrote Under the Volcano, the 1947 classic about a British consul wasting away again in a dryly apocalyptic version of Cuernavaca. The drink that bears his name calls for white rum, orange liqueur, and lemon juice to be mixed with tequila (or mescal) and for the mixture to be strained into a glass with a salted rim. If you tweak the most common recipes to achieve a gentler ratio of tequila/mescal to rum, then the cocktail will achieve a ruined grandeur evocative of the novel. If you do not tweak the ratio, then you, the drinker, will achieve a ruined grandeur evocative of the novelist.
Martin Amis: "Dipsomaniacs are either born that way, or they just end up that way. Vastly distinguished in the sphere of dipsomania, Malcolm Lowry, it seems, actually planned to be that way, from childhood."
The way to enjoy this one is to bat your eyelashes at the barkeep and ask her to mix tequila, fresh lime juice, honey, and Angostura bitters in a shaker, to shake, and to serve the pink potion over ice in a rocks glass. I count no references to tequila among Humbert Humbert's horrible confessions, but of course Dolores Haze was conceived at the siesta hour on a honeymoon trip to Vera Cruz. It is a mysterious drink. The dynamics of its bittersweet tang shift as the ice melts, and, like a Pink Gin, a Lolita is really something to gaze at in candlelight. Nabokov was a grapheme-color synesthete who, in Speak, Memory, wrote of experiencing the letter M as "a fold of pink flannel," and this most elegant of all tequila cocktails is a low-lit mmmm.
If none of these options appeal and if you find yourself, Thursday night, in a cantina where a natural margarita is impossible to come by, then please remember tequila's heartiness. I mean, there are variations on the Bloody Maria that call for clam juice, beef bouillon, and even blue cheese to be slopped into the tomato mix, so it follows that it's perfectly acceptable to order a shot of the cheapest mixto, dump it in your salsa, and dig in with your nacho chips as the world turns, bringing another tequila sunrise to the rude horizon.