On May 5, 1862, after Mexico had defaulted on its international loans, a ragtag troop of Mexican soldiers defended the city of Puebla against the French army, who’d come to collect its debts. Known as the Battle of Puebla, the event became a symbol of Mexican resistance over imperialism. The following year, “Cinco de Mayo” (not to be confused with Mexican Independence day, which is Septembe 16) was celebrated by Mexicans living in Southern California in solidarity against the French. By the 1930s, the holiday became a way to celebrate Mexican-American identity and culture throughout America, and today it’s more widely celebrated in the U.S. than in Mexico.
In honor of this day, we’d like you to meet Spicy Rita. She’s our favorite margarita recipe, with her peppery kick of jalapeño pepper and bright floral orange blossom notes. As you probably know, the margarita is a sour; more specifically, it’s a in category of cocktails called daisies, which are made from varies spirits with citrus and flavored sweetening agents. (Fun fact: The word “margarita” literally means “daisy” in Spanish.)
The traditional margarita is made from silver tequila, fresh lime, and orange liqueur with an optional salted rim. (My recommendation: Always say yes to the salt.) A margarita should be at once sour and slightly sweet (but never from pre-made sour mix – ew.) The Spicy Rita here adds muddled jalapeño, smoked paprika, sea salt, and a spritz of orange blossom water to the mix. These melodious floral notes bring it into a wild, ethereal realm. Truly, this is poetry in a glass.
Becoming popular in the 1930s, the margarita was a bit of a late bloomer compared to other classic cocktails such as the old-fashioned, Sazerac, and the daiquiri, which have their roots in the 1800s. As with many culinary traditions, though, the margarita has its fair share of origin myths. It may have been invented by restaurateur Carlos “Danny” Herrera near Tijuana. Or it might have been the bright idea of Texan socialite Margarita Sames at her Acapulco vacation home. But probably not.
One thing we do know is that margaritas were in full swing by the time the first frozen margarita machine was invented in 1971. And while I can’t recommend that particular type of concoction, I can tell you this: Tequila, lime, and salt were made for one another, and a fine orange liqueur makes the whole situation that much smoother. This perfect mélange is, IMHO, nectarous divinity.
When I crave a margarita, which is often, I always imagine the salt rim first. I love and look forward to it, especially how it foils the fresh citrus juice. Plus, there’s so much room for variation and creativity with this particular part of the drink. Sometimes I’ll add micro-planed lime zest to the salt, other times black pepper. (One of my favorite recipes blends dried ancho chili peppers into black lava salt to yield a coarse, dusty-gray salt rim with an earthy, smoky flavor. But that’s a recipe for another holiday.) For the Spicy Rita, I mix coarse pink Peruvian sea salt with a heavy dash of smoked paprika. This smokey, salty, pink concoction leaves you thinking, What was that!? And so, you keep sipping.
Choose a silver tequila that’s made from 100 percent agave. I like brands with smooth, buttery, cooked agave notes such as the Siembra Valles blanco tequila I used for this recipe. Grown in sandy, volcanic soils, the agave lends an exquisite, rich minerality to the taste. Depending on your selection, though, you could have notes of dry spices, figs, exotic fruit, or tropical blossoms.
Although it’s a great excuse to drink margaritas of all kinds, Cinco de Mayo isn’t just a boozy holiday. It’s a chance to celebrate the beauty of Mexican culture, food, music, and dance. So go on and raise a toast with the Spicy Rita. Salud!
2 ounces silver tequila (I love Siembra Valles blanco tequila)
2 slices jalapeño pepper, seeds removed
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce triple sec or dry Curaçao
3 drops orange blossom water*
2 tablespoons coarse pink sea salt (white sea salt may be substituted)
pinch of smoked paprika (plain paprika may be substituted)
lime wheel (for garnish)
To make the salt mixture for glass rim
Place 2 tablespoons of sea salt in a shallow dish. Add a heavy shake of paprika and mix ingredients together.
To make the cocktail
In a bar tin, muddle jalapeño pepper slices. Next, pour tequila, lime juice, triple sec and orange blossom water. Alternatively, the orange blossom water may be spritzed over the top of the finished cocktail with a culinary atomizer or small spray bottle, as I did here. Add ice and shake vigorously for 10 seconds.
Coat the outer lip of a rocks glass with lime juice. (The easiest way to do this is to run a lime wedge around the rim of the glass.) Roll the glass rim in the sea salt mixture to coat. Add fresh ice to the glass then pour the cocktail over it. Garnish with a lime wheel.
*Look for orange blossom water at Whole Foods or in the international aisle of your grocery stores.
Photos by Lindy McDonough.
Read more: The Classic Daiquiri, Redefined for Winter