I’d like to say it was love at first site. It wasn’t.
I had been hearing about the Batanga cocktail for years. As a rule, however, I generally avoid drinks that contain Coca-Cola, since they’re usually teeth-achingly sweet.
But I recently found myself in the Mexican town of Tequila, in the legendary dive bar La Capilla, whose signature drink is the Batanga. As I watched the bartender fill a large plastic cup with a dose of salt, the juice of half a fresh lime, tequila and a healthy pour of Coke, I shook my head and ordered a Paloma instead.
Yes, it was charming that he cut the lime, opened the classic glass bottle of soda and stirred the drink with just one tool—a hefty kitchen knife. Yes, I had noticed that just about everyone in the place was drinking a Batanga and cases of Coke were stacked in precarious towers everywhere I looked. The cocktail just wasn’t for me.
But as I sipped my Paloma—which, in my defense, was quite delicious, a Batanga-like mix except for grapefruit soda replacing cola—I couldn’t help but feel like I had somehow failed a drinks test. A large photo of the late British bartender and tequila expert Henry Besant, posing next to a life-size bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway, inside famed Havana bar El Floridita, hung on the wall. Fuck. Hemingway would have had a Batanga. One of his famous drinking edicts was to drink what the locals drink. Besant, no doubt, would have had one, too. I looked away in shame and nursed my oversize Paloma.
Fortunately, my story doesn’t end there. Despite my regret at not trying a Batanga, I came back to La Capilla the next day and dutifully ordered another Paloma. But the bartender—we’ll blame the band of enthusiastic mariachis—misheard and fixed a Batanga instead. What could I do?
I drank it. And loved it.
Maybe it was the Mexican Coke, which is made with cane sugar instead of the American version’s corn syrup, or drinking tequila in Tequila, but I fell hard for the Batanga. The sweetness of the cola is, of course, a perfect foil for the tart lime juice and salt, which gives the concoction a bit of unexpected depth. Not unlike what it does for a Paloma. (According to a number of sources, the salt is usually on the rim and not in the cup but I liked the version I was made.)
I’m not the only one charmed by the drink. Chantal Martineau includes a beautiful passage about visiting La Capilla and meeting its famed bartender, Javier Delgado Corona, in her 2015 book, How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit. She wrote: “Named for a long-gone regular at the bar—batanga is slang for someone who’s ‘thick in the middle’—he says the secret lies in the knife he uses to stir each drink, which is also used to cut avocados for guacamole, and tomatoes and onions for fresh salsas. No doubt it adds an extra dimension to the drink.”
As I tried to get the bartender’s attention to order a second round, I began to wonder why the drink isn’t bigger in Mexico or in the United States. The Rum & Coke, or Cuba Libre, which is very similar to the Batanga, is one of the most popular drinks in the world, with supposedly millions of them consumed every day. La Capilla is a popular stop for the hordes of bartenders that visit the local distilleries. The ingredients are common and easy enough to get and the recipe is extremely simple. So what gives?
I called up Martineau to ask her why the Batanga isn’t seen much outside of La Capilla. Her hunch? That the drink didn’t fit into the modern mixology craze, since the recipe isn’t a lost classic and it’s not about sourcing rare ingredients. Even in Mexico, she points out, it’s not widely available in fancy cocktail bars. “There’s nothing exotic about it,” she says. “Now you wouldn’t see it because cocktail culture in Guadalajara and Mexico City is very inventive and really cutting edge.”
The Batanga is many things, but it is certainly not cutting edge. It grew out of the traditional Mexican changuirongo style of cocktails, according to top cocktail historian and Half Full’s senior drinks columnist David Wondrich, which were popular in the 1930s and 1940s. These drinks combined different kinds of sodas with tequila and the Batanga became well-known as Coke made an international push. Wondrich also may have found the answer to why it never became an international best-seller: After World War II, rum displaced tequila in the drink and the Cuba Libra took off in Mexico as a result.
But there’s still hope. Top bartender Ivy Mix, who co-owns the James Beard Award–nominated pan-Latin cocktail bar Leyenda, in Brooklyn, and is the author of the forthcoming book Spirits of Latin America: A Celebration of Culture and Cocktails, with 70 Recipes from Leyenda and Beyond, is a big fan of the drink. She admits that four years ago she included a version of it on the menu at her bar, which even featured a homemade cola syrup, but it didn’t sell very well. “People just didn’t get it,” she admits. But Mix isn’t ready to give up on the Batanga and even shared her recipe for the drink and the directions for cola syrup in her new book. “I think there’s lots of opportunity,” she insists. “Look how much the Paloma has taken off in the States. It’s insane.”
Even just a few years ago, it seemed as though people would never be persuaded to try tequila in something other than shots and Margaritas. Now, it’s challenging to persuade them to combine their ever-more expensive tequilas with Coke.
But I agree with famed whiskey distiller Booker Noe: When asked once if he minded that his namesake Booker’s Bourbon was often mixed with Coke, he replied that the result was the best damn Bourbon & Coke a person could have.
Excuse me while I fix myself a Batanga.