12 Ways to Think Outside the Sour Mix on Cinco de Mayo

Tepache in large Mason jars being presented.
Skip the neon-hued margaritas this year with cocktails that incorporate tequila, mezcal and other traditional Mexican spirits — minus the sour mix. Photo: Jodi Cash.

The margarita: yet another classic cocktail sullied by decades of shortcuts, misinterpretations and pre-bottled ingredients. In its original, purest form, the margarita is a well-balanced, refreshing drink — not too sweet, not too sour, and certainly not made with fluorescent modifiers from a bottle. But on today of all days, the saccharine modern-day interpretation of the margarita is even more ubiquitous, dished out by the gallon to Cinco de Mayo revelers in fishbowl glasses and larger-than-life pitchers. It doesn’t have to be this way. Should you be so inclined to honor this national Mexican holiday at your bar, we have a few suggestions that don’t involve sour mix or neon hued liqueurs. Below, a few ways to up the ante behind the bar on Cinco de Mayo:

1. La Paloma

While the margarita may be the preferred tequila-drinking method of choice for many Americans, the Paloma actually holds court south of the border as the go-to drink. Grapefruit and tequila, as it turns out, are a match made in heaven — even more so than tequila and lime — but the commercial success of frozen drink machines in the ‘70s left the poor Paloma in the margarita’s dust. Try it with fresh-squeezed grapefruit and Topo Chico, and you’ll see why this classic deserves a resurgence.

2. Minor Swing Margarita

This is one margarita that packs a swinging punch. Kimberly Patton Bragg of New Orleans’ Three Muses created this hot sauce-dusted riff on a margarita with hibiscus and jalapeño-infused tequila and blood orange liqueur, then takes it up a notch by baking Valentina hot sauce with salt and using it to rim the glass.

3. The Greens & Blues

We’ve all had a salt-rimmed margarita, but what can salinity do for a cocktail when it’s actually in the glass, rather than on it? This build includes a drop of 10% salt solution to draw out the flavors of the drink’s reposado tequila, Chartreuse and green apple liqueur, a concoction dreamed up by Staffan Alexandersson of The Tasting Room in Norway.

A cocktail garnished with cucumber slices. Salt enhances flavors without overpowering them. The Tasting Room applies this theory in one of their season cocktails, The Greens & Blues, which is made with reposado tequila, Cartron Pomme Verte, green chartreuse, lime juice, agave syrup, cucumber and a 1:1 salt solution. Photo courtesy of The Tasting Room.

4. The Puddle Jumper

What’s better than tequila and mezcal, together at last? Tequila and mezcal united with ginger and lime, in this smoky Mule-esque drink from Los Angeles’ vintage travel-inspired lounge, Now Boarding.

5. The Sea Cubed

Bartender Stephen Kurpinsky is lucky enough to work in a bar overlooking the La Jolla cove, where the Pacific Ocean crashes onto the bluffs below. He wanted to bring this sense of place to his own version of a margarita, so he began experimenting with gathering local seaweed and freezing it into ice for just the right amount of salinity. The Sea Cubed Margarita is the final product, with mango, lime and chile-infused tequila accented by the visually striking block of kelp suspended in ice, like a tiny ocean in a glass.

Cocktail with seaweed ice cube. The Sea Cubed is bartender Stephen Kurpinsky's ocean-inspired take on a margarita, with kelp suspended in an ice cube that slowly lends salinity as it melts. Photo: Jim Sullivan

6. DIY Tepache

More and more bartenders are catching on to tepache, a fermented Mexican pineapple beverage traditionally sold throughout Mexico by street vendors. The fermented beverage, which adds a funky layer of complexity to cocktails, is simple to make: it’s just a matter of prepping a few ingredients and letting the magic of fermentation do its thing.

Tepache in large Mason jars being presented. Tepache, a traditional Mexican pineapple beverage, is simple to make — and fun to experiment with in cocktails. Photo by Jodi Cash.

7. Smoke & Flowers

To tame the smoky, heady, oft-overpowering beast that is mezcal, Reyka ambassador Trevor Schneider pairs it with a floral elderflower syrup and tart raspberries for a bold but nuanced spring serve.

8. The Dirty Burro

Suffice it to say that the Tippling Bros., the bartending wonder-twins who recently penned a field guide to Mexican-inspired cocktails, know their stuff — as evidenced by this tequila mule, which combines Lunazul Tequila with a hot sauce kick and sweet pineapple tartness.

Lime-garnished tequila cocktail With tequila, ginger and hot sauce, the "Dirty Burro" has a kick.

9. Gota de Nopal

Why limit yourself to tequila today? Raicilla, a spirit once considered to be cheap Jalisco moonshine, is gaining traction among craft bartenders as its producers jockey to position it among the likes of mezcal and sotol as an artisanal agave spirit. This raicilla cocktail from Violeta Cisneros, bar chef at Stratosflair Cocktail Academy in Guadalajara, features jackfruit liqueur, agave syrup and nopal cactus, capturing the essence of authentic Mexican flavors.

10. Instant Crush

Save this one for your service industry friends: with tequila, mezcal, and Fernet Branca all in one glass (topped off with oaky, smoky Moondog Bitters), this creation from Bittered Sling is crush-worthy for anyone who appreciates a cocktail with an ensemble cast of flavors aggressive enough to grow a little proverbial hair on the chest, but somehow balanced enough to make it harmonious.

Overhead view of a cocktail garnished with an orange peel Instant Crush, created by Lauren Mote, Co-Proprietor of Bittered Sling Extracts (Vancouver, Canada).

11. Daedelus’ Rose

The Tequila Sunrise may get a bad rap now, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this drink reigned supreme — especially among the rock ‘n roll set. Bartender Torrence O’Haire from Grand Rapids, Michigan reimagined the dive bar classic with rose syrup, creme de banane, carbonated coconut water, and Milagro Silver tequila, whose subtle perfume-y notes are accented in this delicate, floral serve.

12. The Dizzy Oaxacan

The world needs more mezcal-amaro cocktails — and this recipe, adapted from “The Tippling Bros. A Lime and a Shaker," delivers. The Tippling Brothers have recently teamed up with spirits recommendation app Distiller to educate consumers about spirits, and specifically to spotlight some of Distiller's favorite agave spirits in recipes. Here, Del Maguey Mezcal meets its match with amaro, grapefruit, ginger, hot sauce and a chile-dusted grapefruit slice.

Mezcal cocktail garnished with chile-dusted grapefruit slice The Dizzy Oaxacan, a recipe adapted from "The Tippling Bros: A Lime and a Shaker."

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