The Influence of Mexican Bartending
Contributor: Mark Arellano
Photographer: Alberto Arango & Ramiro Guerrero of Flores Cosmos
As Alex Valencia begins his video, pineapple floats to the top of a large Cambro brimming with frothy liquid. Your eyes are drawn to the iceberg-like pieces of pineapple peel and Alex’s stylish uniform. He’s sporting a polka dot tie with matching suspenders, hair slicked back and secured, and a pinstripe apron. Here, in one of his many social media videos, Alex is straining a drink called tepache - a bartender favorite in recent years - and narrating the steps to his followers. Alex is a bartender and partner at La Contenta, a Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His bar is unapologetically Mexican in decor and boasts a large selection of agave distillates, as well as “alternative” agave spirits such as raicilla and bacanora. Here, Alex and his staff prepare cocktails with Mexican spirits and flavors, showcasing how Mexican drink-making has evolved alongside the modern wave of mixology-focused bars both in Mexico and the United States. He is not alone in this endeavor; other distinctly Mexican bars and bartenders in the US are making noise as well. Mexican culture is leaving a mark on the American bar industry by defining its own style of drink-making through the use of indigenous Mexican ingredients and cultural flavors, fermented beverages, and distilled agave spirits.
The commercial success of Tequila and mezcal has encouraged bartenders all over the world to experiment with swapping in an agave distillate for the traditional base spirit in classic cocktails. However, there is not often a comprehensive approach to working with agave spirits in bar programs outside of Mexican-owned establishments, such as incorporating native Mexican ingredients or inviting Mexican bartenders into the planning process. In the craft cocktail world, robust agave inventories can be seen housed in modern establishments with minimalist design and seemingly little to do with Mexican bartending culture. This signals to the guest that the bar is serious about agave but unconcerned with the program’s erasure of “Mexican-ness.” In the worst scenarios, appropriation is noted by the incorporation of the Aztec goddess Mayahuel, Virgen de Guadalupe, and other Catholic imagery in logos, merchandise, and other branding elements. However, by looking at Mexican bartending, or as Alex likes to say, “Mexican Mixology,” as an approach to drink-making with its own defining characteristics, there is much more to uncover about how to appreciate Mexico’s contribution to the modern bar.
Rio Grande Valley: Micheladas & Cheladas
Mexican beer drinks and drinks in a bottle are a category all to themselves. Some are humble in execution like the chelada: Beer, lime, and salt. Others, like the many faces of the michelada, are dramatic in presentation. Chris Galicia, Beverage Director of Las Ramblas in Brownsville, TX, notes, “Micheladas are just one of those things that - especially in RGV - are so intertwined with drinking … period.” He is speaking of the area known as the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) also called “The Valley,” and the strong hold that Mexican beer drinks have on the bar scene there. When asked what makes a michelada so appealing, he says, “In a lot of Mexican culture there are certain things like mole - the way they are made is very personal. Micheladas are the same way.” He goes on to say, “If I were to make one - my standard base ingredients are Clamato®, Worcestershire - but in place of Worcestershire, people sometimes use Maggi®. I think of it like Mexican soy sauce basically. Then you have salt either in the drink or on the rim. I sometimes put in olive juice. So it is a very personal drink.” Chris notes that fruit-based micheladas have come into popularity as well. These drinks mix fruit juice or puree into a beer combined with salty, sweet, and spicy elements. “In Mexican culture, spice with fruit goes very well. Like mixing Tajín® with mango or pineapple,” says Chris. He recalls a new restaurant in the RGV that boasts an ambitious michelada menu. Describing the menu, he says, “these guys kind of filled a need no one knew was there. Depending on which michelada you order - they will pile gummy rings, Tajín®, chamoy [on the lid] - you drink the michelada with a straw through the top and right there you have this sweet or salty snack.”
Denise Soto was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States in her adulthood. Her cocktails draw from traditional Mexican flavors and her cultural nostalgia for corn, jamaica, and chamoy (a tangy-fruity sauce spiked with chile). “Who else is gonna better represent us más que nosotros?” Denise asks. Recently, she worked behind the bar at Osito’s Tap in Chicago where she utilized ancestral agave spirits and flavors such as tamarind, cucumber, mazapan (a marzipan-like candy made from peanuts), and chili peppers. “As Mexicans, we lived [flavors] with our parents and grandparents,” she says of these familiar ingredients. Osito’s Tap is Mike Moreno Jr’s passion project and speakeasy behind his family-owned 44-year-old liquor store, Moreno’s. Bartenders and agave lovers come from all over to dive into their selection of over 700 agave spirits. For Mike, opening a craft cocktail bar in Little Village, a neighborhood home to Chicago’s largest Mexican population, was always going to feature strong Mexican flavors and cultural influence.
These ingredients, indigenous to Mexico, show up just as often in the preparation of drinks such as cantaritos, batangas, micheladas, and sangritas as they do in Mexican cuisine. Alba Huerta, accomplished bartender and owner of Julep in Houston, TX, looks at the use of fresh ingredients like cucumbers, corn, and prickly pear as belonging to a larger umbrella of the Latino bar. Alba says of Latin American influenced bars, “The first and easiest thing to see is their use of local [fresh] ingredients. That’s such a tell-all marker.” This point is proven by observing the service well at Alex’s bar. Servers march out a rainbow of beverages that call attention to the fresh fruits and vegetables used to craft them.
Rio Grande Valley: Dressed Beers & Carretas
“Dressing” a beer is hardly a new concept in Mexican-American drinking culture. This way of enjoying beer is so popular that it has spawned countless brands of ready-to-drink (RTD) canned mixtures from some of beer's biggest names. However, there is something to be said about the flair with which Mexican restaurants and bars serve these drinks. Often they come with a snack. Chris laughs and says, “Imagine a whole platter with cold seafood: Peel and eat shrimp, slices of cucumber, and right smack dab in the middle is a 6 pack of Mexican beer cans and they just throw everything in the platter on top of it - chamoy, Tajín®, crushed up dried shrimps, lime. They are throwing everything at these beers.”
In a similar fashion, Mexican bottled beverages have received the same treatment. Pop the top, take the first sip to make some room, and add your Tequila or mezcal. The bottle can be salted, spiced, or sauced, depending on your preference. Chris notes that this trend has caught on in the larger bar community in the US in the form of ranch water, “people have been making ranch water here in the valley since before I was a bartender. I was eighteen hearing people order that at the bar. It is called a carreta,” says Chris. “It’s such a simple thing. When some [people] would order it from us they would say, ‘Hey, bring me a carreta’ - you would know - ok they want Tequila with lime juice and sparkling mineral water with an option for salt on the rim.”
Among the colorful concoctions, ancestral drinks such as tepache, pulque, and tejate belong to a category of non-distilled fermented beverages from Mexico. Some of these beverages have made it into mainstream cocktail bars all over the world. One such drink is the aforementioned tepache. Fermented using the peels of pineapple, sugar (piloncillo), water, and warming spices such as cinnamon and clove, tepache is served cold as a refreshing drink out of street stalls in Mexico. Tepache is one of several pre-hispanic beverages still widely consumed in Mexico. Its original recipe included corn and likely resembled another street beverage found in Jalisco and Colima: Tejuíno (or tesgüino). The history of both tepache and tejuíno is unclear, but most attribute these fermented beverages to the Nahuas, a group indigenous to northwest and central Mexico. In Alex’s tepache video, he is seen holding up whole charred ears of corn, roasted corn husks, and peppercorns (search for his tepache recipe in Hivemind). He includes these ingredients to respect and honor the pre-Columbian way of making tepache...and to prove a point. According to Alex, tepache has been limited to pineapple for quite some time but can be made out of any fruit you can get your hands on, such as avocado, papaya, or mango to name a few.
 “Nahua, Middle American Indian population of central Mexico, of which the Aztecs of pre-Conquest Mexico are probably the best known members. The language of the Aztecs, Nahua, is spoken by all the Nahua peoples in a variety of dialects. The modern Nahua are an agricultural people; their staple crops are corn (maize), beans, chili peppers, tomatoes, and squash. Also common are maguey (the Mexican century plant), sugarcane, rice, and coffee.” “Nahua.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed September 27, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nahua.
Pulque: A Rebellious Past
While fermented street beverages are not often found in Mexican cantinas, one has spawned its own bar subculture in and around Mexico City: Pulque. Produced by fermenting the sap of the Maguey plant, this ancestral beverage has a milky hue and viscous consistency. Famously enjoyed across Mesoamerica and by the Aztecs in celebrations, ritual ceremonies, and other occasions, pulque consumption has survived as a drinking tradition for centuries. Pulquerias, places dedicated to serving up pulque, served working-class Mexicans and skyrocketed in popularity around Mexico City in the 16th century. However, oppressionist agendas under Spanish colonialism sought to eradicate pulquerias, which they saw as a conduit for Indigenous, poor, and working-class people to band together.* Fortunately, the popularity of pulque would persist as the beverage lasted as a favorite of older generations until the Mexican youth, looking to reconnect with their Indigenous roots, revived pulquerias in the last decade. Modern pulquerias add fruit and other flavorings such as pistachio to appeal to a wider audience. More bars are experimenting with pulque in their beverage programs as well. However, pulque is best consumed fresh, and therefore, it is not widely available in the US.
Similar to the ingredients native to Mexico and the fermented beverages mentioned above, the production of mezcal and its most popular spirit, Tequila, has risen to fame in the craft cocktail world and a broader consumer market. The switch in the public perception of Tequila from being a shooter to a sipper reflects a growing appreciation for Mexican drink-making. Alba describes the availability of agave spirits in Texas: “There is more mezcal available. There’s definitely now bacanora. There’s definitely now sotol, raicilla.” During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, US Tequila sales outperformed other spirit categories as more people turned to bartending at home. The Margarita reigned supreme as the to-go cocktail of the summer and more bartenders (and guests alike) turned to agave spirits for drink-making. Alba agrees and adds, “There’s curiosity about these products because they kind of bring people home.” Speaking about the fusion of Tex-Mex drinking culture, she says, “They kind of remind you of a place, or its nostalgia that’s associated with them.”
For many who have immigrated to the US from Mexico over the years or identify themselves as Mexican-American in the bar industry, working with agave distillates is an opportunity to express their culture to their peers. However, the Mexican style of bartending goes beyond its famous agave distillates. A more comprehensive approach includes the use of fresh ingredients native to Mexico, spicy and fruity flavors that have been popularized in Mexican candies and snacks, incorporating non-distilled fermented beverages, as well as the customization of beer drinks and cocktails built in the bottles of Mexican mixers. The global bar industry needs only to look at the flourishing bar scenes throughout Mexico for more inspiration. “You don’t have to be Mexican to do Mexican Mixology,” says Alex. “For me, it is wanting to know the part of Mexico where these ingredients come from.” This curiosity, Alex hopes, will build a more sincere appreciation for Mexican drink-making and perhaps catalyze reflections on the missing Mexican culture from agave-focused programs in the US. “My ancestors are Purépechas,” proclaims Alex Valencia proudly, referring to the unconquered Indigenous people of the Sierra Madre region in Mexico’s state of Michoacan. Like many in the Mexican bar community, his mission is stated plainly, “I want the Mexican [bartender] to be proud of being Mexican.