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Mexican-inspired cocktails to topple the margarita

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What makes a cocktail "Mexican"? Put that question to Charleston's mixologists and the answer typically includes tequila or spice. So where do you draw the line in a story about "Mexican-inspired cocktails"? Can we include a drink spiked with ghost peppers at the Macintosh? (Answer: No, we'll save that for next year's Indian-themed SWIG). What about a cocktail built around the Peruvian liquor, pisco? (Answer: Close enough).

To be honest, no actual Mexicans were encountered or consulted in the research for this story, so if you hope to read about the secrets we uncovered during a crawl through Acapulco's bar underbelly, you'll be disappointed (although we did encounter a mezcal-saturated scorpion on King Street). Rather, take solace knowing that these drinks are available at a watering hole near you — no flight required — and they're likely to taste better than anything you'll find at a swim-up pool bar in Cabo.

The Firetag and its namesake, 
musician Aaron Firetag at High Cotton - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Firetag and its namesake, musician Aaron Firetag at High Cotton

The Firetag ($9)
High Cotton 199 East Bay St. Downtown (843) 724-3815 mavericksouthernkitchens.com

This fire-throated refresher began as a bowl of watermelon gazpacho. "I was eating it and thought to myself, 'This would be so much better with tequila in it,'" says High Cotton manager Katie DeHart. She spiked her soup with Maverick's house-brand tequila, then lent it an extra kick with a splash of High Cotton's in-house habanero sauce, lovingly dubbed "Colon Fire" by the kitchen staff. Mint and cilantro round out the flavor, emboldened by a rim of salt with lime zest and watermelon rind. After that first rush of salt and sour, a sip comes on sweet before settling with a vengeance. DeHart named the drink after local mandolin player Aaron Firetag, who was performing at the moment of its creation.

Summah, Dhania ($10)
Husk 76 Queen St. Downtown (843) 577-2500 huskrestaurant.com

If you macerate your tequila too long, it'll go blind, says Husk bartender Charlie Freeman with a laugh as he mixes up a Summah, Dhania cocktail, one of the restaurant's top sellers. To make it, Freeman starts with an ounce-and-a-quarter of Hornitos Añejo tequila, in which fresh jalapeños have macerated for three days. Oranges are roasted over fire then squeezed into a smoky juice that's complemented by a cilantro-infused simple syrup and Aperol, an Italian aperitif. Imbibers cursed with the "cilantro gene" will pucker, but for the rest of us who appreciate a cool drink that makes you sweat, it's an excuse to slow it down and sip casually.

The El Guapo at Halls marries smoky mezcal and tart pomegranate - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The El Guapo at Halls marries smoky mezcal and tart pomegranate

El Guapo ($10)
Halls Chophouse 434 King St. Downtown (843) 727-0090 hallschophouse.com

Don't let the little monster with big pincers lurking in the bottle of Scorpion Mezcal Añejo scare you off — this agave export from Oaxaca forms a perfect intersection between tequila and scotch, thanks to the smoking process that the piñas undergo. Halls bartender Hugh Kimball was recently turned onto mezcal by a friend and immediately went to work finding flavors that could complement and contrast the liquor's intensely smoky flavor. He settled on a house-made pomegranate reduction (think: POM on flavor steroids), Gosling's ginger beer, and a ginger-infused simple syrup. "Mezcal's smoke would overpower lime juice or normal simple syrup," says Kimball, explaining the need for concentrated tart and bite. Served in a highball glass, El Guapo looks like a fruity beach-bum drink, but it's deceivingly complex.

Pushing Daisies ($12)
Republic Reign 462 King St. Downtown (843) 724-7400 republicreign.com

Bartender Evan Powell is big on imagery.

For his reconstruction of a margarita, he thought about the word's meaning: a daisy. Instead of relying on sweeter accoutrements like triple sec or Grand Marnier, he opted for Chartreuse (a centuries-old French liquor that's famously made by monks using a secret recipe of 130 herbs and flowers), Solerno (a blood orange liquor from Sicily), and Avión Reposado tequila. "The reposado is laid to rest in barrels to soften up a little bit," explains Powell. "When something (dead) goes under the ground, it fertilizes the soil and allows flowers to grow, so that's where the Chartreuse comes in. And maybe the Sicilians made a few people push some daisies too." Balanced with a splash of sour mix from local juice company Harvest Pure, the 'rita comes in an Old Fashioned glass with a rim of kosher citrus salt, creating a crisp, savory cocktail that won't leave you bloated like a conventional margarita can.

Michelada ($6)
The Lot 1977 Maybank Hwy. James Island (843) 571-4343 thelotcharleston.com

Fancying up a beer with lime, salt, or hot sauce is nothing new, but The Lot manages to transform their Michelada into a true cocktail. After bouncing between Modelo Especial and Kalik as the base, bartender Josh Hamerick chose the latter, a Bahamian export with a more crisp finish. The drink begins with lime and a "hefty pinch" of cilantro muddled together, before adding a splash of house-made green chili hot sauce (salt, sugar, water, and chilies left to mingle for months on a dark shelf). A salt and lime zest-rimmed pint glass awaits as the drink gets an ounce of lime juice and a healthy shake. It's got some heat — and serves as a more refreshing hair-of-the-dog alternative to the Bloody Mary.

Perry Darby squeezes fresh grapefruit for the Paloma at The Southern - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Perry Darby squeezes fresh grapefruit for the Paloma at The Southern

The Paloma ($6)
The Southern 730 Coleman Blvd. Mt. Pleasant (843) 849-0396

As soon as Perry Darby put an industrial-sized hand-press citrus juicer out on the bar at the Southern, the Mt. Pleasant bar began churning through three cases of grapefruits a week. "Once you squeeze the first one, everyone else at the bar says, 'I'll have one of those,'" Darby says. Their Paloma ranks among the Southern's most popular drinks, and its creation is simple: squeeze juice from half a grapefruit, add a healthy pour of Milagro Silver tequila, top with a splash of soda water, and garnish with a lime wedge. When Darby's at the bar, he may add a few drops of agave nectar or honey. You'd have to set up shop in a grapefruit orchard to find a fresher drink.

Pisco Punch ($7)
Bàsico 4399 McCarthy St. North Charleston (843) 471-1670 basicombrc.com

Mexico is hot, hence the proliferation of drinks that beg to be sipped in the sun and the tendency to call them "refreshing" (guilty). With their location adjacent to a swimming pool, Bàsico knows how to cater to their audience. The frozen Cocojito may be the best adult Slurpee in town. But real finesse can be enjoyed in cocktails like the Pisco Punch, utilizing Barsol pisco (grape brandy) from Peru. The liquor is paired with Clement Creole Shrubb, an orange liqueur that lends the drink its golden complexion, along with pineapple, lemon, and lime juices. Garnished with a cherry, Bàsico manages to pull off rich flavors in a light, easy-drinking cocktail.

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