Latin American Beverages...Mexico Baby

Latin America positively overflows with interesting liquids and unbelievably obscure drinks. But why is there not more interesting writing on the beverages of this fine land? We can’t understand it. The team at The Cocktail Service have taken a few days off to indulge in some in-depth research into the broad variety and rich history of Latin American cocktails and explore the acquired tastes of some of its most famous drinks.

Since this subject could take a lifetime to research, we’ve decided to look at one country at a time and work our way through... not too dissimilar in approach from Che Guevaras' journey of discovery, minus the Norton 500 motorcycle, but plus Starbucks and a laptop.

So we begin in Mexico, and a worthy starting point is its most famous son, Tequila. Now Tequila’s roots go way back, as it is a distilled version of an Aztec drink called Pulque, which was traditionally fermented with the sap of the Maguey plant. As was so often the case in Latin America at the time, Spanish invaders rocked up and apart from attempting to colonise the land, they also decided that Pulque was vile and introduced the country to the art of distilling. No bad thing.

The first spirit to be rendered from the maguey plant through distillation was known as vino mescal - a fairly rough spirit that gives its name to the category that Tequila belongs to - Mescal. Through centuries of trial and error, a variety of the Maguey plant was discovered called Blue Agave, which today dominates Tequila production. Tequila is actually made in and around the town of Tequila, in Mexico’s Jalisco province, and according to Mexican law is the only spirit that can be produced by blue agave plants grown in Jalisco and its environs.

It’s not fair to mention Tequila without giving a salute to Mescal. This spirit is produced mainly around the city of Oaxaca, and although not as popular as Tequila, it exports well, particularly to Japan and the USA. Unlike Tequila, Mescal can be produced from any variety of agave and the production process is slightly different too. Tequila takes the Piña (the pineapple-shaped heart of the plant) and steams it before distillation. Mescal takes said Piña and roasts it in an underground pit, giving it that unmistakeable smoky flavour.

Moving swiftly on, we look to the Goliath of Mexican cocktails: the Margarita. Surely it has to be one of the top ten cocktails in the world? But where did it originate from? Like every classic cocktail, there are several claims to its origins. Our vote, however, goes to this tale:

‘A Dallas socialite named Margarita Sames purportedly hosted a poolside Christmas party at her vacation home in Acapulco, Mexico. The party game for Margarita was to mix drinks behind the bar and let her guests rate the results. When she mixed three parts tequila with one part triple sec and one part lime, it was such a success among her guests that it quickly travelled from Texas to Hollywood and the rest of the country, bearing her name.’

Wherever the cocktail came from, it is a timeless classic that features in every self-respecting bar in the land. It’s a very generous beverage and can be twisted in every way possible to create delicious blends. In our humble opinion though, there is only one way to drink a Margarita:

50ml Tequila
20ml Fresh lime juice
15ml Agave syrup

Shake and strain on the rocks (with or without a salt rim as we find the salt slightly overpowering but each to their own on this)

The most interesting thing about Mexican beverages is the style and popularity of some of their more obscure offerings:

  • Damiana Liqueur is a light liqueur made with the damiana herb that grows wild in Baja California, Mexico. The Damiana Margarita is very popular in the Los Cabos area of Mexico. It has a wonderfully light, sweet and satisfying flavour that is perfect alone, as an after-dinner drink, or mixed in your favourite margarita.
  • Sangrita is traditionally blended using tomatoes, or tomato juice, orange juice, fresh lime juice, onions, salt and hot chilli peppers. Born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Sangrita was created to quench the fire of homemade tequila and quickly became a Mexican tradition. Typically used as a tequila chaser, mixer, or co-sip, Sangrita allows the person to appreciate the premium tequila while sipping alternately from each of the glasses. Sangrita (meaning ‘little blood’ should not be confused with the popular Spanish fruit and wine elixir, Sangria.
  • Michelada is something that most certainly should be tried given its stratospheric popularity in its native Mexico. The original Beertail contains all or some of the following: lime juice, salt, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Tabasco or other hot sauce, powdered chillies, tomato juice, ice and beer. Sound revolting? I think you might be pleasantly surprised.
  • Pulque is as old as the hills, a drink that used to be produced by the Aztecs. It is a milk-coloured, somewhat viscous alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant and actually is not something anyone here at The Cocktail Service has tried. Due to that, we have to reserve judgement on this one, although we think we are within our rights to say it looks vile!

So there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of some Mexican specialities (and we managed to get to the end without mentioning Kahlua!). It is clear that the world has a lot to thank Mexico for and some of the world’s most famous spirits and cocktails hail from here. Salud!