Of all drinking holidays, Cinco de Mayo is arguably the happiest.
Nestled in the heart of spring, when weather ceases to be as variable, this day is all about celebration, first warmth, and riotous good times. So what better way to celebrate this casual, fun-in-the-sun occasion than with an over-intellectualized, multi-ingredient, stirred tequila cocktail?
Your thoughts exactly, I’m sure.
Believe me, if you’re out looking for margarita-variation recipes, there are plenty to be had—ones with passion fruit and mango, prickly pear and hibiscus, frozen and unfrozen, skinny and fat. And because it’s the beginning of May, and spring is fully swung, you’ll take great delight in whatever recipe you’ve discovered, because again, delight is what this day is all about.
But perhaps this isn’t a typical Cinco de Mayo, and perhaps, despite bars and restaurants reopening, and friends and family vaccinating, you’re still not ready to dive back into the party scene with head-on abandon. Perhaps this year you’ve mellowed out just a bit, grown more contemplative, and as a result, have come to take joy in cocktails that are more aligned with your new sensibility.
I’m right there with you. It’s a good thing we found each other.
Of course I love simple, refreshing, shaken cocktails. Gimlets, daiquiris, margaritas: there is always a time and place for these. But there’s something about a well-made stirred cocktail that beguiles and entrances in a different kind of way. These are not for throwing back. They are for sipping, reflecting, and unfolding—just the sort of dynamic, fun-loving words you associate with Cinco, right?
Now here’s the challenge: think of a classic, stirred tequila cocktail. Off the top of my head, I can think of several for any other major spirit. But not tequila. Why is that? What is it about this spirit that doesn’t immediately lend itself to the context of a stirred cocktail?
In my experience, tequila begs to be taken in a particular direction. It likes citrus. It likes tropicality and sugar. It likes salt and it likes heat. It likes these components together, and when you begin talking about these elements, they are ones that typically require shaking to properly integrate them. Another unique aspect of tequila is that because it’s distilled from agave—a succulent desert plant—it’s often vegetal in character. It behaves, in the realm of spirits, almost as Grüner Veltliner does in that of wine. Grüner Veltliner is known for its vegetal pepperiness, which allows for more challenging pairings such as asparagus. You can imagine tequila in a similar context. It’s difficult to say this of another spirit.
In conceiving of a stirred tequila cocktail, my strategy was to prepare a homemade cordial incorporating many of the qualities I described above. Citrus cordials are ideal for adding brightness to a stirred cocktail without resorting to shaking, as the juice and sugar are already integrated, and the acid has been mellowed. A basic cordial of this kind can be prepared similarly to a simple syrup, substituting the citrus juice of your choosing for water. The cordial I made for this cocktail brings lime and sugar together with three other ingredients: bay leaves, black peppercorns, and smoked salt. Each of these elements, combined in this context, help to bring out and enhance the most characteristic properties of the tequila base. The bay leaves add ethereal aromatics, bridging qualities inherent in the peppercorns and lime, while also contributing herbaceousness. The peppercorns offer mild, compelling heat, while not resorting to more clichéd tequila accompaniments such as jalapeno or Tabasco. Smoked salt picks up on the savory elements, lending balance to the sweetness.
Along with this cordial, I’ve included a few other ingredients in this cocktail for dimension and complexity. The first is dry vermouth. There’s a reason why dry vermouth partners with olive brine in martinis: it is an exquisite foil to salt. I mentioned above that tequila loves tropical companions, so another ingredient I’m adding is Giffard Banane du Bresil, a luscious banana liqueur with darker, more bruléed notes than other crèmes de banana on the market. To balance this, I’ve also used mastiha—a liqueur common to Greece and neighboring Mediterranean islands made from the distilled resin of mastic trees. The flavor profile is uniquely vegetal and fresh, evocative of cedar or pine. The finishing touch is a smokier mezcal, also an agave based spirit.
Obviously there’s a lot going on here. But for this cocktail, that’s the point. My margarita recipe has three ingredients: tequila, agave syrup, and lime. Regular bar patrons say it’s the best they’ve ever had. Again, there’s a time and place for very kind of cocktail, and there’s a tequila cocktail for every kind of Cinco de Mayo. These are complex, thought-provoking times. Sometimes it’s good to have a cocktail that understands where you’re at.
All Her Phrases Stirred
from Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West”
- 2 oz. 123 Organic Blanco Tequila
- .75 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
- .5 oz. Salted Bay Leaf, Lime, & Peppercorn Cordial*
- .25 oz. Giffard Banane du Bresil
- .25 oz. Roots Masthica
- .25 oz. Fidencio Classico Mezcal
- Pinch of Smoked Sea Salt
- Lime Zest
Clark Moore has worked in the restaurant business for over 23 years as a barman, sommelier, general manager, beverage director, and beverage consultant. He is also a published poet, and has taught English and poetry at three different colleges. He has an affinity for imperial stout, prodigious beards, and bold neckties.