If you understand what the 5th of May really stands for in Mexico, then you understand why it’s a bit bizarre that Cinco de Mayo has become such a popular drinking holiday in America. Over the years Americans seem to treat it like Mexican St. Patrick’s Day—an excuse to eat guacamole and get wasted on tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer. It shouldn’t be. In most of Mexico, no es gran cosa. It’s not that country’s Independence Day, as many misunderstand it to be (that’s the 16th of September). Rather, it marks the anniversary of a very unlikely underdog victory, and one that was as short-lived as it was surprising—the defeat of the French army in Puebla in 1862.
Long story short, Napoleon III had invaded Mexico because they were in serious debt to France from their fight for independence from Spain, and not paying up. When the French troops, led by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, landed on the Mexican coast, General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín had already prepared his army and somehow roughly 4,500 Mexican soldiers managed to fend off 6,500 French ones at the Battle of Puebla. The French backed off and Mexico enjoyed a brief period of calm and unity. Eventually Napoleon bore down with more troops and Maximilian ended up as dictator, installing himself as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. No longer occupied with the Civil War, the U.S. sent reinforcements to expel the French from Mexico and Maximillian was executed by firing squad in 1867.
Not that this incredible moment of victory doesn’t deserve a toast! It’s been my own tradition to celebrate Cinco de Mayo by mixing Mexican spirits with small amounts of French ones to commemorate the battle.
One of my favorite cocktails using these elements is El Diablo, a classic that can be traced back to the 1946 publication of Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink. It’s a refreshing, springy blend of tequila, French crème de cassis (black currant liqueur), lime and ginger beer.
The cassis (Massenez, Boudier, LeJay, Drillaud among other good ones) adds a brambly brightness to the cocktail, as well as a dramatic purple-red hue. It also matches well with the vegetal, citrus and earthiness of tequila, and the sharp tingle of the ginger. A hit of smoke from mezcal is also a fitting addition (to represent the fire and fury of the battle), and I even created a variation that uses both.
As always, look for “100% agave” on the label when selecting tequila and mezcal for cocktails.
A few I like to use for home cocktails:
- Fortaleza, which has a richness of roasted agave flavor (even the blanco) from tiny little stills, made in the heart of the town of Tequila
- Don Fulano, which I gravitate toward for its earthiness and complexity, true throughout the range
- Calle 23 Blanco, a surprising pear and ripe peach favor makes this one so yummy in sour-based cocktails
- PaQuí Silvera, because the name literally means “to be happy” in the Aztec language, and it has a sunny, almost tropical flavor
- Milagro Silver, for its dominant citrusy notes, which make it a no-brainer for anything shaken
- Tromba Reposado, which has just a hit of a milk chocolatey note, playing off the citrus and vegetal flavors
- El Tesoro Reposado, which has the fruitiness of a highland-grown agave tequila, with a pop of herbaceousness
While still rather smoky, these mezcals work well in cocktails because the barbeque-like smokiness plays well off of the fruitiness and spiciness of drinks like El Diablo and its variations, and they are also not as pricey as some other expressions.
- 1.5 oz/44 mL tequila blanco or reposado
- .5 oz/15 mL crème de cassis
- .5 oz /15 mL fresh lime juice
- ginger beer
- Garnish: lime wheel or twist
Combine all ingredients except the ginger beer in a cocktail tin with ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with ginger beer. Garnish.
(Ataque Sorpresa) Surprise Attack
Here’s my El Diablo riff on the Penicillin.
- 1.5 oz/44 mL tequila reposado
- .5 oz/15 mL crème de cassis
- .75 oz/22 mL lemon (not lime) juice
- .5 oz/ 15 mL ginger honey syrup (make a syrup with 1 cup honey, 1 cup water and about 6 inches of peeled ginger)
- soda water
- smoky mezcal
- Garnish: candied ginger or lime wheel
Shake tequila, cassis, lemon juice and syrup with ice until well chilled. Strain into a double Old Fashioned glass filled with fresh ice. Top with soda water. Using the back of a bar spoon, float a couple of drops of mezcal over the drink. Garnish.
By the way, I highly suggest sipping these food-friendly cocktails with some tacos and/or quesadillas on the side. Perhaps with some spicy chorizo? I’m really excited that it’s now possible to get chorizo in the states made with 100% Wagyu beef! I was able to score some over the weekend (only $9.99 a lb) from KC Cattle Company, which is veteran-owned, with proceeds of sales to veterans’ foundations. More info here: