The margarita may be one of the most popular cocktails among American tourists visiting Mexican resorts, but it’s not actually the most beloved cocktail in Mexico. Some uninformed cocktail lovers might guess it’s the Tequila Sunrise, if only because of faint memories of that 1973 Eagles song played on soft-rock radio throughout the ’90s. But this would also be wrong. The summery grapefruit-and-tequila drink known as the paloma is widely considered to be our neighbor’s favorite cocktail. Notable drinks writer David Wondrich even deems it the National Drink of Mexico. But while the paloma is indeed a popular refreshment south of the border, the original is not as fancy (or as expensive) as some Texas bar menus might lead you to think.
The citrusy refreshment has shown up on myriad cocktail lists across the state in recent years, boasting everything from fresh Rio Red grapefruit juice and tamarind-laced Himalayan salt to chile-infused tinctures and simple syrup made with lime peels. These creative iterations, seen at Texas spots like Austin’s Suerté and Marathon’s White Buffalo Bar at the Gage Hotel, are indeed beautiful and delicious. They represent the cocktail renaissance in American culture over the past decade. Just as pre-Prohibition libations such as the Manhattan, the sidecar, the Sazerac, and the old-fashioned have all risen in fame, each with its own history and lore, the paloma has also found a seat at the craft cocktail table.
But this cocktail is more laid-back than its artisanal brethren. In its original form, the paloma is less of a composed beverage found on a glitzy bar menu and more of a casual, two-ingredient sipper more commonly enjoyed at home.
“There’s nothing complicated about the paloma. At its core, it’s just tequila and Squirt [grapefruit soda]. That’s it. And that’s what makes it so great,” says Juan Pablo De Loera, a San Antonio–based tequila and mezcal brand consultant who works for brands like Partida, Avión, and El Tequileño. De Loera’s family is from Jalisco’s capital city of Guadalajara, and he has split most of his life between Mexico and the States. In his experience, it’s rare to find a paloma listed on a bar menu in Mexico. For him, they were simply part of relaxed social gatherings, where his parents would set out tequila bottles on a table along with mineral water and Squirt for self-service. If someone wanted a drink, they would pour a tequila and grab a mixer.
“Many people say any grapefruit soda will work, and in a pinch, Jarritos is a close substitute, but I would never buy anything other than Squirt,” says De Loera. “When I want a paloma, I like that exact bracing taste and the sugar rush to go with the bold taste of tequila. Nothing compares. We rarely drank sodas in our house, but when friends would come over, there was always Squirt around for a quick paloma,” he says. “It was like a condiment you would always have on hand, like ketchup or mustard. There was nothing precious about pouring up a Squirt and tequila. It’s the equivalent of a basic rum and Coke.”
The details of the paloma’s origin are a little murky. Unlike many classic cocktails, which predate Prohibition, the paloma didn’t arrive on the scene until after 1938, when Squirt was first invented in Phoenix, Arizona. Squirt began advertising its appeal as a mixer with tequila as early as 1950, although Mexico didn’t begin importing the soda until 1955. (Those who prefer Jarritos grapefruit soda should note that Jarritos wasn’t invented until 1950, with coffee as its first flavor. Grapefruit came some time later.) By the 1980s, tequila hadn’t quite won over the American consumer as a fashionable spirit. Instead, the cheaper “mixto” version of tequila, which contains at least 51% agave spirit mixed with cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, had gained popularity in college frat houses and seedy bars. The good stuff, true tequila made from 100% blue agave, has gained momentum over the past several decades.
“Tequila is a misunderstood spirit,” says David Suro-Piñera, a restaurateur, importer of tequila from his native Mexico, and president of Siembra Azul tequila. “When I opened my restaurant more than thirty years ago, people were looking for a worm at the bottom of the bottle. I’ve spent years helping people understand the complexity and evolution of this spirit.” (Mezcal, a similar spirit that sometimes contains a larva, gave rise to the common worm-in-tequila misconception.)
It’s unclear how or when the paloma got its name, which is Spanish for “dove.” Some say it could have been confused or exchanged for pomelo, Spanish for “grapefruit,” as the spellings are similar. Drinks writer David Wondrich reported the paloma’s first mention on a menu at Tlaquepaque restaurant in Orange County, California, in 1999. In 2000, celebrated Texas chef Grady Spears and food writer Brigit Binns published Cowboy Cocktails and mentioned “The La Paloma” (which translates embarrassingly to “the the paloma”) as “virtually the national drink of Guadalajara.”
But De Loera believes the name goes back even further. “My dad remembers drinking palomas sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s when he was growing up in Guadalajara,” he says. “Even then, it was certainly just grapefruit soda with tequila. Adding salt or lime was considered more of a posh thing to do. He said that the Squirt was actually used more by the upper class while a cheaper [soda], Pato Pascual, would be more common in lower economic circles. They called them palomas or palomazos at the time.”
Suro-Piñera remembers palomas from his college years in Guadalajara in the 1970s. “The essence of the cocktail is so basic and so delicious. I think the paloma makes so much more sense than the margarita. The citrus notes of the grapefruit work so well with tequila. It’s just beautiful,” says Suro-Piñera.
But the paloma isn’t necessarily ubiquitous across Mexico. By law, tequila is primarily made in the state of Jalisco, though municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, and Michoacán are also permitted to produce it. But this only represents five of Mexico’s 31 states.
“Beyond the tequila states, I think it’s fair to say you’d find the paloma in most of Mexico’s major cities, and certainly at heavily touristed resorts,” says De Loera. “But it definitely has a regionality to it.”
Houston Eaves, a San Antonio–based bartender and consultant who recently helped launch the beverage program at the new Pharm Table in Southtown, agrees. “In Oaxaca, the paloma wasn’t really a thing,” says Eaves, who has lived and worked in Oaxaca. “It was never something you’d see on a bar menu in that part of the country. In cantinas, it was usually cold beer and mezcal.”
It wasn’t until Eaves returned to Texas a few years ago that he noticed the paloma had become a regular fixture at hip bars and modern Mexican restaurants. And during the warmer months of the year, there’s no denying the growing demand for the summer sipper. Whether served in its classic form—like at Houston’s Superica restaurant as a glass of ice with a shot of El Jimador Blanco and cold bottle of Squirt on the side—or in a more composed cocktail, like the one Eaves recently included on the Pharm Table menu, the paloma is here to stay.
The various interpretations of the paloma displayed on bar menus across Texas make it clear that there are many ways to enjoy this thirst-quenching libation. Whether you make it as the simple two-ingredient classic or fashion a creative riff using fresh ingredients, there are lots of ways to fall in love with the paloma—and we’ve gathered two of ’em below.
Recipes: The Classic & The Pharm Table Paloma Rosada
1 to 3 ounces reposado tequila (we like Siembra Azul, Próspero, or whatever’s closest on the bar cart)
1 bottle of Squirt grapefruit soda, chilled
“I don’t know anybody that would measure out a paloma,” says De Loera. “It’s just a pour of tequila over ice and however much soda you would like.”
Pharm Table Paloma Rosada
1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila (Pharm Table uses Cimarrón)
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1 teaspoon Espadín mezcal (Pharm Table uses Wahaka)
rose salt (optional)
small dried rose, for garnish (optional)
rose water (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with a small handful of ice. Shake until ice dissolves. Pour over fresh pellet ice in a highball glass rimmed with rose salt (a pink Himalayan salt blended with dried rose petals.) Top with mineral water and give a gentle stir to combine. Garnish with a small dried rose and mist with rose water.