We up here in el Norte spend a lot of time these days talking about the impact Mexico has on the culture of the United States, although that discourse is rarely deeper than either fulsome paeans to taco trucks and tortas, cemitas and chapulines or fulminations about lazy, violent gang-bangers who are also stealing our jobs. Thank God for mezcal. Stigibeu!
But that influence goes both ways. You rarely hear people up here talking about the impact Yanqui culture has on Mexico unless it’s about the havoc caused by our unquenchable thirst for illegal drugs and loose regulation of easily-smuggled semiautomatic weapons, and most of us don’t like to talk about that. And yet the American influence is strong, woven into the very fabric of Mexican cities, with 7-Elevens and KFCs all over the place and American brands on every store shelf.
Among those brands, of course, is Coca-Cola, popular in Mexico since World War II (before the war, RC Cola was already making inroads down there). Now, it’s not just Mexico—Latin America in general has long embraced mixing drinks with Coca-Cola as well as with its lighter, politer Canadian cousin, ginger ale (the white wine, as it were, to Coke’s red), with a passion so deep and enduring it can seem a bit exotic to the North American drinker.
Here, the cola or ginger highball is among the baby steps of mixology; a simple drink for simple occasions. But from the Rio Grande to the Straits of Magellan, it’s often the national drink; the one thing that everybody agrees on: the thing you order at the bar, drink with your friends, serve to your guests.
The farther south you go, the simpler the drinks get. Piscola, the national drink of Chile, is simply Chilean pisco—a clean, clear grape brandy—mixed with cola and ice. Pleasant enough, but a little lacking compared to Argentina’s equally simple, yet magnificently weird, Fernet y Coca, in which the Coke struggles valiantly with Fernet-Branca, the inky, bitter, pungent Italian amaro (made locally under license) only to succumb at the end.
Moving up to Peru, we find the Chilcano, a favorite since the 1930s, which might start with pisco and ginger ale, but it often goes on to include orange and/or lime juice, and a topping of dashed-in bitters. For a Sol y Sombra, “Sun and Shade,” it’s the same, but with half the pisco swapped out for cherry brandy. Mixology. In neighboring Bolivia, there’s the Chuflay (“shoo fly,” phonetically rendered), with singani—their version of pisco, although just as old—and Coke and lime juice.
Setting aside the Rum and Coca-Colas and Cuba Libres of the Caribbean for another time, that brings us back to Mexico, which as usual in such matters takes a catholic approach to the Coke/ginger ale divide. There is even a generic term, Changuirongo, for the “combination of tequila with any carbonated soft drink handy,” as the early tequila expert Virginia de Barrios explained in 1971.
Sometimes there is also lime juice, as in the Batanga, a specialty since the 1950s of Don Javier Delgado Corona at La Capilla, his bar in the town of Tequila. Tequila, lime, Coke, ice, all stirred with the big steel knife he uses to prepare salsa. Switch the cola for ginger ale and add a splash of earthy, even funky, French crème de cassis and you have the popular and delicious El Diablo. (OK, this one may have been invented by Trader Vic in the 1940s, or maybe he just stole it; the jury is out.)
Those drinks are fine. But for something transcendent, you need to use another bottled, flavored sugar-water of United States origin. You need Squirt. (Yes, you can use another grapefruit-flavored soda, such as Wink, Ting, or Jarritos’ Toronja.)
Squirt, an American invention of the 1930s, came to Mexico in 1955. I suspect it was first mixed with tequila in 1955, too, but evidence is lacking. By the 1970s, its makers were advertising the combination in the United States (“Tequila has appeal with Squirt”), but it still hadn’t really caught on. Only in the 1990s did it find its footing.
The place was San Pedro de Tlaquepaque, a small town on the outskirts of Guadalajara that got absorbed by the city as it expanded in the late twentieth century. Tlaquepaque, as it’s known, was famous for its pottery and crafts, and was always a popular shopping destination for Mexicans and Yanquis alike. Along with all the bubble glass and earthenware jarros and serapes and whatnot, Tlaquepaque also offered another attraction: a picturesque old plaza with a fountain in the middle where mariachi bands gathered and arcades around the sides packed with little bars and restaurants.
El Parián, as the plaza is called, was the perfect place to look over your purchases and get pleasantly jingled while listening to the mariachis. In the mid 1990s, the popular drink there was what Nancy Zaslavsky called, in her 1997 A Cook’s Tour of Mexico, the “Lazy Man’s Margarita.” Tequila, lime juice, Squirt and ice, in a tall, salt-rimmed glass. By the end of the evening, as she wrote, “bottles of tequila and endless bottles of Squirt crowd tables for self-service, and…fancy salt-rimmed glasses are long forgotten.”
By the end of that decade this drink was filtering into the United States. In 1999, a restaurant in the Orange County, California town of Placentia was serving it as the “Paloma”—the Dove. The name of that restaurant? Tlaquepaque. A local institution (it opened in 1965), Tlaquepaque could have certainly helped to popularize the drink’s name, but it’s unlikely that it came up with it: Cowboy Cocktails, a book published the next year, was already identifying “The La Paloma” as “virtually the national drink of Guadalajara.”
Over the next few years, the Paloma gradually radiated out of the Southwest to all the other corners of this large and thirsty land, a Mexican drink that would not exist without American technology. It is simple, balanced and ridiculously refreshing. Sweet, sour and a bit salty, with a hint of bitterness from the grapefruit and the lime peel, and, if you use a good, 100-percent agave tequila and don’t skimp on it, a whisper of umami, it covers the whole flavor spectrum. There is no better summer drink.
The United States and Mexico are tied together inextricably, whether either side likes it or not. It’s only a drink, to be sure, but the Paloma is also a pretty good example of the benefits of accepting that fact.
- 1.5 or 2 oz 100-percent Agave tequila, blanco or reposado (I like El Tesoro, Siete Lieguas or Siembra Azul, but Cuervo Tradicional also works pretty well)
- 2-3 oz Grapefruit soda, as above
- half a Lime
- Glass: Tall
- Run the cut edge of the lime around the rim of a tall glass and roll it in kosher salt (or you can just throw a pinch of salt into the glass, which I prefer).
- Squeeze the lime into the glass.
- Add the tequila and fill the glass three-quarters of the way with ice.
- Add the squeezed-out lime shell.
- Stir, add the Squirt or whatever grapefruit soda you like, and stir again briefly.
- Be refreshed.