Cinco de Mayo for the Right Reasons

battle of puebla - cinco de mayo
battle of puebla - cinco de mayo

Please don't treat Cinco de Mayo like Mexican St. Patrick's Day.

Sure, it’s a good excuse to celebrate all things Mexican and gorge on its cuisine and drinks, but the true significance is often misunderstood. May the 5th is not Mexican Independence Day as many would believe. Instead, it marks the date of the defeat of the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. This is a history lesson I hold very near and dear, and for this reason, I like to share it every year as a sort of “Mexican Passover” tale:

Mexico had already been fully independent by the 1820s (though El Grito de la Independencia first rang out September 16, 1810, it was followed by nearly a decade of war with Spain.) By 1861, Mexico was in serious debt to England, France and Spain. France, under Napoleon III, decided to go after their money, and maybe snag some land for the empire, while he was at it. England and Spain wanted to stay out of it. President Abraham Lincoln very publicly expressed his sympathy, but the U.S. had its hands full, what with the Civil War and all. So Napoleon saw his opportunity and sent Austrian-born Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (debatably a cousin) to lead the French army to invade Mexico and claim it for themselves.


The French landed on the Mexican coast in the spring of 1862. However, General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín knew what was coming and had time to prepare the Mexican army, who tensely awaited the invasion in the state of Puebla. There were 4,500 Mexican soldiers and some 6,500 French. But on May 5th, at forts Loreto and Guadalupe, they somehow succeeded in fending off Maximilian’s troops and halting the succession, thus restoring a sense of national unity and patriotism. Albeit, short-lived.

Napoleon eventually sent more troops and Maximilian was installed as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. By 1867, the American Civil War had ended, and the U.S. sent in military and political reinforcements to expel the French. Maximilian faced the firing squad. The massive estate he lived in with his wife, Empress Carlota, still stands in the middle of Mexico City and is open to the public.

It is that brief and improbable underdog victory that is the true significance of Cinco de Mayo. Ironically, in Mexico it is mostly only observed in Puebla. In other places, people enjoy any excuse to party, especially with a Margarita or cerveza. However, I find it more fitting to do so with something that includes both Mexican and French ingredients (and yes it counts to sip tequila or mezcal that has been finished in French oak or used Cognac barrels, such as Riazul,Casa Noble, Milagro, Excellia and Mezcal Los Nahuales.)

Here are a couple of Mexi-French cocktails to try. One from me, the other from our far-flung, agave-loving, German correspondent, Jens Kerger:


by Amanda Schuster

  • 44 ml/1.5 oz Tequila Reposado
  • 15ml/.5 oz Cognac
  • 15ml/.5 oz Benedictine
  • 15ml/.5 oz Lemon Juice
  • 8ml/.25 oz Agave Nectar
  • 2 medium, Fresh Strawberries + 1 for garnish
  • 4 Mint Leaves

Gently muddle strawberries and lemon juice in the bottom of a mixing glass until well combined. Tear the mint sprigs in half and slap against wrist to release the oils. Add them to the glass with the other ingredients, and fill with ice. Shake until well combined. Double strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Cut a small slit in the bottom of the strawberry and perch on glass rim for garnish.

Baño de Sangre Mexicana (Mexican Bloodbath)
Baño de Sangre Mexicana (Mexican Bloodbath)

Baño de Sangre Mexicano (Mexican Bloodbath)

A smoky, hearty drink with an extra touch of freshness.

by Jens Kerger

  • 30ml/1 oz Mezcal
  • 30 ml/1 oz Byrrh(or Lillet Rouge orDolin Rouge)
  • 30ml/1 oz Fresh Orange Juice
  • 10ml/ 1/3 oz Absinthe
  • 1 tsp Laphroaig
  • 1 Orange zest

Method: put all ingredients except Laphroaig and zest in a shaker. Add ice and shake hard. Strain into a tumbler and layer the Laphroaig on top with a spoon. Curl up the zest and place on the rim. You can serve the drink with an Ice Ball or a BFIC (Big F-in Ice Cube) if you wish, though it helps unfold the flavors to let it get warm.

If you can wait till blood oranges are in season again, sub 2/3oz (20ml) blood orange juice and 2/3oz (20ml) Chartreuse verte for the orange juice  and the absinthe.