Mexican Cocktails Finally Get Respect as Bartenders Kick Up the Quality
Pictured above from left to right: LUCHA CANTINA’S The Natural, POCA MADRE’S Charlie &
The Chopuline Factory, LUCHA CANTINA’S Abuelita’s Medicine
Ask people to describe their first experiences with Mexican cocktails and you’ll probably hear stories about neon-green margaritas served in massive, salt-rimmed glasses—if not souvenir plastic cups. As long as beaches exist, those crowd-pleasing cocktails will endure, but discerning drinkers are now seeking more refined options when they want to imbibe south-of-the-border style. Bartenders across the country are answering the call with recipes that use premium spirits, upscale mixers and a flair for the dramatic.
Drake Perez, the head bartender at Lucha Cantina in Rockford, Ill., believes the secret to elevated cocktails lies not only in having quality ingredients, but knowing what combinations yield the most harmonious flavors.
“I take whatever tequila I want to use and taste its different flavor profiles and match it with locally sourced or seasonal ingredients so we can create the best, freshest cocktail possible,” he says.
As for how to select the most complementary produce, Perez lets geography be the guide.
“With agave spirits, if it grows together it goes together, so we look at fresh tropical produce like lime, lemon, mango and passionfruit,” he explains. “I don’t like to use anything that’s preserved or canned.”
These combinations, along with some family inspiration, yield cocktails like Abuelita’s Medicine.
“This one stems from growing up with my grandma—you take a shot of tequila, some lemon and a little bit of honey when you’re not feeling well,” he explains. “It’s Herradura silver tequila, Xicaru mezcal, mango nectar, fresh lime juice and a honey habanero syrup with a Tajin rim. It’s delightfully sweet and spicy, and it won people’s choice best cocktail in a Herradura cocktail competition two years ago.”
For those looking for sunshine in a glass, the restaurant has an artisanal version of the traditional margarita it calls the Natural.
“It’s made with Herradura reposado tequila, Luxardo Triplum triple sec, fresh lime juice and agave nectar,” according to Perez. “It’s amazingly fresh, slightly tart and leaves you wanting more.”
Washington, D.C.’s recently opened Poca Madre has a cutting-edge, mezcal-focused cocktail program that’s informed by research trips to Mexico.
“The focus is on the history, taste, production and style of mezcal and the love that goes into it,” says bar manager Amin Seddiq. “We import a ton of ingredients from Mexico, such as our hibiscus and our sal de gusano.”
Sal de gusano is worm salt, a chili salt made with a type of moth larva that lives in agave plants, and it tops every one of Poca Madre’s house margaritas. If that’s not buggy enough, there’s the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory.
“That’s our grasshopper cocktail,” Seddiq explains. “We get grasshoppers from Mexico and cook them in a peanut sauce with lemongrass, then we use a fresh farm egg. It’s basically a pisco sour but with mezcal, grasshoppers and peanuts.”
These unique cocktails represent just how far Mexican cocktails have come—and how far they can go.