Americans have embraced this date as an excuse to celebrate all things Mexican and gorge on its cuisine and drinks, but the true significance is often misunderstood. May 5 is not Mexican Independence Day as many would believe. Instead, it marks the date of the defeat of the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
It’s a long story. The gist is that by 1861, Mexico was in debt to England, France and Spain after several wars, including their independence from Spain in 1821 and the Civil War in 1858. France, under Napoleon III, decided to go after their money, and a little expansion of the empire wouldn’t hurt. England and Spain decided to stay out of it. President Abraham Lincoln very publicly expressed his sympathy, but the U.S. had its hands full with the Civil War, and so denied assistance. So Napoleon sent Austrian-born Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (debatably a cousin) to lead the French army to invade Mexico and claim it for themselves.
Photo courtesy Jeremy Swift
In spring of 1862, the French landed on the Mexican coast. Meanwhile, General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín had time to prepare the Mexican army as they awaited the invasion in the state of Puebla. Well, as prepared as 4,500 soldiers can be when going up against 6,500. On May 5 at forts Loreto and Guadalupe, they succeeded in fending off Maximilian’s troops and halting the succession, thus restoring a sense of national unity and patriotism. Albeit, short-lived.
Napoleon eventually sent more troops and Maximilian was installed as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. By 1867, the Civil War had ended and the U.S. was able to send in military and political reinforcements to expel the French. Maximilian was eventually executed by firing squad.
So Cinco de Mayo is really a way to commemorate a glorious and improbable (if brief) underdog victory. Ironically, in Mexico it is mostly only observed in Puebla. Here in the U.S., we like any excuse to party, especially with a margarita or cerveza. Now that you know the real story, how about celebrating with some fitting Mexi-French spirits and cocktails?
One way is to sip something neat. Several tequilas (usually at least the reposado and/or añejo) are aged in French oak, such as Riazul, Casa Noble, Milagro, Chinaco, Corralejo and El Tesoro. Some also use ex-Cognac barrels, such as Excellia and Maestro Dobel. These mezclas are also aged in French oak: Del Maguey Vida, Los Nahuales and Los Danzantes.
Another way to show your appreciation is with cocktails showcasing Mexican spirits over classic French ingredients.
Whatever your libation of choice on Cinco de Mayo, Viva Mexico!
Champagne elegance gets a mezcal kick in the pants!
By Josh Wortman of Añejo in New York City
1 oz Fidencio Clasico
3/4 oz grenadine
3/4 oz passion fruit puree
Champagne, Cremant de Bourgogne, Blanquette de Limoux or other dry, sparkling French wine
lemon twist for garnish
Shake all ingredients except sparkling wine vigorously with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe, flute or medium wine glass. Top with sparkling wine and garnish.
1 ½ oz Excellia reposado tequila
½ oz Cognac
½ oz Benedictine
½ oz lemon juice
¼ oz agave nectar
2 medium, fresh strawberries + 1 for garnish
4 mint leaves
Muddle strawberries, lemon juice and mint carefully in the bottom of a mixing glass until well combined. Add the other ingredients and ice. Shake until well combined. Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Cut a small slit in the bottom of the strawberry and perch on glass rim for garnish.
Tamarindo, Qu’est-ce que C’est?
Beverages with tamarind pulp are not uncommon in Mexico. To the French, it’s kind of a foreign concept. A shame since it seems to match quite well with some of their spirits.
¾ oz mezcal joven
¾ oz Lillet Blanc
¾ oz French orange liqueur
¾ oz fresh lime juice
2 bar spoons tamarind concentrate (available at Latin markets and specialty food stores)
2 slices jalapeño pepper (optional)
Tajín Latin spice mix (optional, to rim glass)
Rim a lowball glass with the Tajín. If using the jalapeño, muddle it in the bottom of a mixing glass with the tamarind and lime juice. If not, add all ingredients except the spice with ice in a mixing glass. Shake until well combined. Strain into the glass and add ice cubes to fill.
Mejico v. Vermut
A stirred drink that’s as layered with flavors as it is with political presence, with neutrality represented by Gran Classico bitters from Switzerland.
By roving bar consultant Jeremy Swift
1 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
1 oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
½ oz Gran Classico Bitter
¼ oz French orange liqueur
1 dash Reagan's Orange Bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
grapefruit twist to garnish (optional)
Place all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until combined and well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass and garnish if desired.
Sin Título (Untitled)
This refreshing, easy-to-make cocktail was created by Caleb Lindskoog at the Lobo in Brooklyn, New York. One problem, it needs a name! We encourage readers to submit their ideas and the winning name will become part of the new official Lobo drink menu!
2 oz tequila blanco
1 oz green Chartreuse
¼ oz lemon juice
Club soda or seltzer
lemon wheel for garnish
Place all ingredients except the soda in a mixing glass with ice. Transfer everything to mixing tin, then back again two or three times. After a couple of rolls, add everything to a Collins glass. Top with soda and garnish.