Some things are so modest and unassuming, the best way to understand their size is by measuring the shadow they cast.
So it is with the Paloma. On its face, it’s one of the simplest cocktails you could ever want, just slightly up from a Rum & Coke in terms of moving parts: tequila, lime juice, grapefruit soda and a pinch of salt. There’s no glamor. It’s not precious or mannered or boutique. How much tequila? A glug or two. How much grapefruit soda? However much fits in the glass.
And yet, look at the effect of the drink, the size of its crater in the culture, and a few things begin to stand out. Like, for example, Mexican summers can be so hot you can hear the ground baking, and for refreshment, the people who live there choose Palomas on average over any other cocktail. Further, consider that it is the Paloma, and very pointedly not its famous big sister the Margarita, that is the National Cocktail of Mexico.
Or notice that it has quietly joined the ranks of the New Classics. It was only invented in the late ’90s, and yet has so pervasively imprinted itself onto the bar world that you can walk into a cocktail bar anywhere—in Mexico City, of course, but also in Mumbai or Moscow or Melbourne or Madrid—you can order a Paloma, and the bartender will know exactly what you mean.
Palomas don’t call attention to themselves. They’re not made for Instagram, they’re made because it’s hot outside, and it’s only in enjoying one does its many charms emerge. Grapefruit soda has a textured half-bitterness that amplifies the refreshment factor, the lime keeps the sweetness in check, and the salt keeps you coming back for more. As for the tequila… a few sips in, the tequila is what makes the sweat on your brow not seem so bad, and what makes your joints begin to release the heat they (you didn’t realize until this moment) had been holding onto. Drinking it, it’s as if the cocktail has invited you to take a seat in its own considerable shade.
- 2 oz blanco tequila
- 0.5 oz lime juice
- 4 to 5 oz grapefruit soda
Add ice to a tall glass. Add tequila and lime and top with grapefruit soda. Mix the ingredients around with a straw (or, as they do at La Capilla de Don Javier in the town of Tequila, with a large knife), sprinkle a pinch of salt on top and garnish with a lime wedge or honestly nothing at all.
Notes on Ingredients
Tequila: we’ve mentioned this before with Margaritas, but all tequila you consume really should be 100% de agave. If it doesn’t say that on the label, it’s 51 percent agave and 49 percent corn or sugar syrup and is literally filler and not worth your time.
As for what kind—lots of recipes call for the slightly oaked reposado and that’s not wrong here, but I much prefer the simple cleanliness of a blanco tequila. Cimarron, Lunazul, Olmeca Altos and Milagro all work. You can get an expensive one and it’ll be great, but the goal here isn’t complexity. The goal is simple refreshment, so even given all options, I reach for more of the budget end of the spectrum for this drink.
Grapefruit Soda: Here’s a big fork in the road, and you can go one of two ways:
(1) If you’d like to stay true to the original, use Squirt. Those of us in close proximity to Mexico are blessed to have readily available Squirt that is made in Mexico, and that uses cane sugar instead of the cloying high fructose corn syrup. I strongly recommend the Mexican version if it’s available.
Beyond Squirt, the Mexican brand Jarritos makes a grapefruit soda that answers the purpose beautifully, as does the Jamaican brand Ting. The truly artisanal ones are hit and miss: Fever Tree and GuS lack the body, and the concentrated fruit-juice sweetness of Izzy is all wrong. Each will work, or not, differently.
(2) Forget the grapefruit soda entirely. The whole craft cocktail movement was started partially as a rejection of things like sugary soda, so bartenders have found an easy workaround with fresh juice, a kiss of sweetness and soda water. Fresh grapefruit juice lacks the zesty punch of soda, but it is brighter, less sweet and just as refreshing. Here’s how you’d make that version.
Paloma (Fresh Edition)
- 2 oz tequila
- 0.5 oz lime juice
- 1 oz grapefruit juice
- 0.5 oz simple syrup
- 3 to 4 oz soda water
Shake on ice. Strain over fresh ice in a tall glass with a salted rim and top with soda water. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.
Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.