The first time you encounter the El Guapo cocktail, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s some kind of joke.
For one, “El Guapo” means “the handsome one” in Spanish, and yet the name has been applied, in this case, to one of the ugliest drinks ever made. It’s like referring to a big guy as Tiny, or calling your nephew “Einstein” after you see him try to eat a palmful of sand. The El Guapo has pulpy lime husks and battered cucumber debris and flecks of black pepper floating in it, and is a lot of things, but as far as cocktails go, handsome is a bit of a stretch.
Another is that it’s named for the villainous El Guapo in the 1986 comedy Three Amigos, a cult classic that catches Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short at peak absurdity and which is essentially one big joke all its own. What connection this cocktail has to the film’s antagonist isn’t immediately obvious, except for that, with all due respect to the actor, one could see the title of El Guapo applied to either as a way to be mean.
And then there is what makes this cocktail spicy, which sounds like a practical joke but for that it tastes great, and is in fact the thing which has enabled this otherwise simple sour to have endured all these years. Spicy drinks, especially spicy tequila drinks, are always top-sellers, and at a glance the El Guapo (essentially a spicy margarita) isn’t exactly a trailblazer. But when you ask what makes the El Guapo spicy—and especially if you know it was invented by Sam Ross, one of the most celebrated living bartenders—you might be expecting the spice to come from a sous-vide infusion, or muddled fresh pepper picked from a rooftop garden, or that it’s seven drops of some artisanal ghost pepper tincture, when really what makes the cocktail spicy is that you grab a bottle of hot sauce and just throw a bunch of it into the shaker tin.
The first time I heard of the El Guapo, I thought it was crazy. Hot sauce? You take your first sip with some trepidation and are surprised and pleased to discover that sure, it’s a little weird, but it’s also amazing. Agave spirits lend themselves to savory cocktails anyway, and the round vinegar bite of the hot sauce integrates perfectly into both the vegetal and smoky natures of tequila or mezcal, respectively, while cucumber’s broad coolness has a similar effect of that of an open fire hydrant on a summer sidewalk.
A clean chile infusion wouldn’t give this drink that feral quality that’s part of its charm. The hot sauce’s peppers, vinegar and host of secondary flavors make the El Guapo a little more rustic and wild than your average cocktail. This is also why the drink benefits by being kept so ugly, “dumped” (ice, pulp and everything out of the shaker into a glass), as opposed to strained over fresh ice. There’s certainly no flavor-based reason why you couldn’t double strain and serve this in a coupe, but aesthetically, a rust-colored glass of ice shards and garden detritus prepares you for what’s to come and earns the name El Guapo as a kind of final joke, even if, like the character in the Three Amigos, it does so ironically.
As for Ross himself, he says the name was free from irony, just simply that he loved that movie growing up, and he figured that they probably would’ve had some pretty decent tequila and mezcal in the Mexican village where it takes place. “Although Jefe was probably my favorite villain in the film,” he says, “El Guapo had a better ring to it.”
- 2 oz. tequila or mezcal
- Half a lime, quartered
- 3-4 cucumber slices
- 0.75 oz. simple syrup
- 3-5 dashes (about 0.25 oz.) hot sauce
Add lime pieces to shaker tin and muddle to get as much juice out as possible. At the rest of the ingredients, shake hard for 5 to 6 seconds and dump the whole thing, ice and all, into a large rocks glass. Taste for balance and add more lime juice as necessary. Garnish with a sprinkle of salt and a good crack of black pepper.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS:
Tequila or Mezcal: This drink originally calls for tequila, but I prefer it with the fat smoke of mezcal, which leans into its inherent rustic quality. Both are great, use whichever you prefer. As for brands, no need to go get something special—the inclusion of the hot sauce will draw focus away from the spirit, so it’s not so important. As mentioned when we were talking about the Paloma, you want your tequila or mezcal to be 100% agave as a basic minimum standard, but there are lots of good and inexpensive bottles in that category. For tequila, I’d guide toward Cimarron, Olmeca Altos or Real del Valle, and for mezcal, Banhez, El Silencio, and Del Maguey Vida are all excellent, but there’s plenty more great and affordable mixing spirits.
Lime Juice: Muddling limes is a bit annoying. While it presses the skins to get more zest, which is great, it’s frustratingly inexact in terms of how much juice you get out of them, and you’ll almost always have to tweak post-shaking to make sure it’s balanced. Also totally acceptable is just using 0.75 oz. lime juice and being done with it. If you really miss the zest, cut or peel a small piece of lime skin, throw it into the tin with the rest of the ingredients and shake it with the ice.
Cucumber: I learned this drink with cucumber many years ago, but as it turns out, the cucumber is not in Ross’s original recipe. There’s cucumber in the Gordon’s Breakfast, a gin version of this that (I believe) slightly predates it, but not here, at least not traditionally. Feel free to omit it, though I think its presence as a shock absorber for the spice is much welcome.
Hot Sauce: the recipe specifically calls for Cholula, which is indeed an excellent choice. I’ve made it with Tapatio, with Sriracha and with a homemade smoked fresno hot sauce, and they’ve all been excellent. I liked Tabasco less, but I also like it less across the board, so I suspect your favorite will be just fine. Use whatever you enjoy.