If you understand what the 5th of May, Cinco de Mayo, really stands for, then you understand why it’s a bit bizarre that it’s such a popular drinking holiday in America. Over the years, as I’ve stated before, people seem to treat it like Mexican St. Patrick’s Day – an excuse to eat tacos 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 deserves a toast. It’s been my own tradition to celebrate Cinco de Mayo by mixing Mexican spirits with French ones to commemorate the battle. This feels like a good year for variations on El Diablo, a classic cocktail that can be traced back to the 1946 publication of Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink. It’s a refreshing blend of tequila, crème de cassis, lime and ginger beer.
I especially like the purple-red hue cast by the cassis in the drinks. My go to is LeJay. Because it is made from two different varieties of black currants (noir de Bourgogne and black down) that are fermented separately then blended together, it has a striking balance of bright fruit, earthiness and acidity. This matches the vegetal, citrus and earth flavors of cooked agave in tequila, the sharp tingle of ginger and can also take a hit of smoke from mezcal if using. Remember to always go for 100% agave tequila and mezcal products!
El Diablo (the classic recipe, a.k.a. The Devil You Know)
Combine all ingredients with ice in cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into Collins glass filled with ice. Top with soda water and garnish with fresh ginger slice.
1c/340 g sugar
1c/237 mL water
4 oz/ 28 g fresh ginger
2 ea jasmine tea in bags
Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add ginger; bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, add tea bags and let steep 30 minutes. Pour and strain syrup through a fine sieve into an airtight container. Discard ginger and tea bags.
Jalapeño Diablo, courtesy Porchlight, New York City
This recipe uses the cassis as a float atop the drink – perhaps a good way commemorate the blood spilled at the Battle of Puebla! Note: it takes a couple of days to infuse the tequila if going that route, so plan accordingly!
2 oz/60 mL Jalapeño Infused Tequila (recipe follows), or go for a quality flavored tequila (yes, they exist) such as Tanteo
.75 oz/22 mL lime juice
.75 oz/ 22mL ginger syrup (combine equal parts chopped, peeled ginger and sugar or honey with boiling water. Purée. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and let cool before using.)
LeJay Crème de Cassis
Shake tequila, lime juice and syrup with ice until well chilled. Strain into a Collins or double Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Top with soda water. Using the pour a bit of Cassis over the back of a bar spoon to float over the drink.
Jalapeño Infused Tequila
1 quart-sized jar
750ml bottle of tequila blanco
3 medium-sized jalapeños
Thinly slice jalapeños (don’t discard the seeds!), place into the jar, and pour tequila to the top.
Screw on the lid and shake. Place jar in a room-temperature, dark place (such as a cabinet), for at least 24 hours. We recommend infusing for 2 to 3 days, and up to a week for maximum heat.
When fully infused, pour tequila through a mesh strainer to remove jalapeño and seeds. You can use the original bottle to store the infused tequila, just be sure to label it!
(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 ginger syrup with honey instead of sugar, using equal parts of all ingredients)
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 the mezcal over the drink. Garnish.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.