Cinco de Mayo has become, in my opinion, something of a farce holiday here in the United States. Originally celebrated by the Mexican state of Puebla to commemorate a victory over the French in 1862, the day has been co-opted by huge liquor conglomerates to pour cheap, mass-market tequila down the throats of frat boys. Chain restaurants, sports bars and any place that advertises "Taco Tuesday" are generally where you'll find young men throwing up on each other this Monday evening. It's St. Paddy's Day but with tequila instead of whiskey.
Regardless of crass commercialism, some Mexican-American communities celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a day of heritage pride. And to that, I'm happy to raise a glass filled with fine tequila. Now, sipping it straight is great, but on the Fifth of May—seeing how this is more of a Mexican-American holiday than a Mexican event—I want a cocktail that merges the two cultures. And so, I enjoy the quintessential Mexican spirit in a distinctly American cocktail: El Diablo.
El Diablo was originally a rum-based cocktail invented in the late 1930s by the Ronrico Rum marketing team. In 1946 Trader Vic published his Book of Food and Drink with a recipe for a "Mexican El Diablo," which called for tequila instead of rum.* I learned of the drink in the late 1990s; in fact, it was one of the first drinks I attempted—and failed—to master.
The original recipe calls for an ounce of tequila, the juice of half a lime and a tablespoon of cassis (a French liqueur made from black currants), served on the rocks and topped with ginger ale. My problem with El Diablo was always one of balance: The drink isn't strong enough and, quite frankly, always tasted like Band-Aids (thanks to the commercial ginger ale, which I feel should only be served to people with stomach illness).
So I took a long, hard look at the recipe, and lo and behold, what I saw was a variation on a Tom Collins. Tequila had been swapped for the gin, lime for the lemon, cassis for the sugar and ginger ale for the soda. It's just that the original proportions needed a little adjustment. And that dreadful ginger ale needed to be replaced, preferably with fresh ginger beer.
The result is a drink I can sip in the backyard all weekend long while noshing on spicy pickled vegetables. Let those who patronize "Taco Tuesday" get their fill of jalapeño poppers and lime-soaked beer. The rest of us will drink like grown-ups this Cinco de Mayo.
Shake ingredients with ice. Add 2 oz. fresh ginger beer to the shaker, and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.
*Ed. note: Thanks to Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom for clarifying that the El Diablo was originally a rum drink, and that Vic's innovation was swapping in the tequila.
Photo by David L. Reamer