Ditch the Salt and Lime: Sangrita Is What Your Tequila Needs

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

"You're making sangria?"

I've heard that several times this past week. What I'd actually said was that I was making sangrita, referring to the traditional Mexican accompaniment to good tequila. But even in today's cocktail-enlightened world, it's clearly still not all that well known. Then again, there's a lot of confusion about sangrita among people who have heard of it, too.

The most widespread version of sangrita is a blend of tomato juice, orange juice, grenadine, and chili pepper, among other things, though it turns out that's a bastardization of the original. Exactly what was in the original sangrita is hard to pin down, but we know tomato wasn't part of it. The bartender and writer Jeffrey Morgenthaler explained on his blog several years ago that sangrita was first made from sour orange juice, pomegranate, and chili pepper. Meanwhile, in Diana Kennedy's great Essential Cuisines of Mexico, she writes that, according to her friends in Jalisco, sangrita started out as just sour pomegranate juice with chili and no orange, although she notes that sour Seville oranges were often substituted, since they were easier to find than sour pomegranates.

Further confounding things, the Wikipedia article on sangrita puts forth a story about how it began as the leftover juices of fruit salad, which is often seasoned with chili powder in Mexico—but there's no source for this claim. Regardless, at some point tomato juice got thrown into the mix, eventually leading to the most common version; if the recipes I found on Mexican websites are any indication, the tomato-based sangrita has become exceedingly common there, too. Even my copy of Pequeño larousse de la gastronomía mexicana, which I bought in Mexico, includes tomato in its definition of the drink.

Honestly, though, beyond the academic fun of trying to get to the bottom of a small culinary mystery, I'm not that interested in nailing down the most "authentic" sangrita. More important is understanding its purpose. Similar to the lime and salt chaser most folks pair with their shots of tequila, sangrita is meant to cut some of tequila's intensity. But, unlike that bracing blast of pure lime and salt, sangrita is intended to complement the tequila, not just erase it. More than a heavy-handed way of making the spirit go down easier, sangrita enhances a quality sipping tequila—usually a silver (un-aged) one, though some folks serve it with gently aged reposados as well. The idea is to take a nip of one, then the other, back and forth, without shooting it all down at once.

The hallmark of successful sangrita, no matter the exact recipe, is that it balances the potency of the tequila. That means a good dose of acidity (hence sour oranges in those earlier incarnations) and enough sweetness to keep that acidity in check, all while delivering flavors that pair well with the tequila itself. As for the spicy chili? Instead of intensifying the tequila burn in an unpleasant way, it manages to act as a bridge between the strong alcohol and fruity chaser.

To help get you started on your own sangrita journey, I came up with four easy recipes, ranging from classic to decidedly not. Mix one (or more), then grab a bottle of something decent and go wild...just not too wild.

One big note on all these recipes: Fresh fruit juices can vary significantly in terms of flavor, tartness, and sweetness, so use these recipes as starting points, then adjust them to taste by adding more of any of the ingredients until you think the balance is right.

Orange-Pomegranate Sangrita

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This recipe is based on Morgenthaler's rendition of the original sangrita, which is so simple there's not much to change about it.

The main difference between his and mine is that I simplified the pomegranate component. Morgenthaler's recipe has you blend fresh orange and lime juices with good-quality grenadine syrup, for which he also provides a recipe. That makes sense for professional bartenders, but whipping up a batch of from-scratch grenadine just to make a tiny shot of sangrita seemed to me like more effort than most home drinkers are willing to make. (If you are willing, go check out his recipe.) Instead, I call for plain fresh or from-concentrate pomegranate juice, along with just enough sugar dissolved in it to simulate the grenadine's flavor.

The shot itself has a blood-red tint from the pomegranate—hence the name, which translates as "little blood." Mixed with it is freshly squeezed orange juice that's punched up with lime to re-create the effect of sour oranges, then made spicy with a pinch of chili powder. I used hot Pequin chili powder, but you can substitute others, like cayenne, if you don't feel like tracking it down at a Mexican market.

Pineapple-Cucumber Sangrita

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My idea here was to bend the sangrita in a more tropical direction, while using a small amount of cucumber juice for its cooling effect, which plays beautifully with the hot alcohol and chili spice. It works really well. Once again, lime juice helps raise the tartness to a more intense level, while Pequin chili powder adds heat. It's a combo that's proven to work—pineapple is one of several fruits dusted in chili powder and sold from Mexican street carts.

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Grapefruit-Chipotle Sangrita

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Grapefruit is another citrus that's a great partner to tequila, yet isn't used nearly as often as lime and orange are. To tame the grapefruit's bitter edge, I added honey for a more complex sweetness, and then spiked it with the bold flavor of smoky chipotle chili powder. This is a deeper, darker sangrita than the light, fruity ones above, proving just how many possibilities there are with this drink.

Clamato Sangrita With Jalapeño and Coriander

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Even if tomato wasn't an original sangrita ingredient, I wanted to give my own nod in its direction—after all, enough people enjoy the tomato-spiked version that it shouldn't just be automatically dismissed. Even so, I wasn't interested in blending it with orange and pomegranate like most recipes say to.

Instead, I stuck with a more straightforward tomato flavor, reaching for a can of Clamato, which is very common in tomato-based sangrita recipes. Clamato markets itself as a tomato-clam juice, but it tastes much more strongly of celery salt than anything else (though it does contain clam as a seasoning). I think of it more as a not-spicy Bloody Mary mix than as a seafood-y drink, and that's the route I took with my sangrita: Using a blender, I puréed the Clamato with diced white onion, fresh cilantro leaves, ground coriander seed, freshly ground black pepper, fresh jalapeño, Worcestershire sauce for even more savory depth, and lemon juice for acidity. It's practically a Bloody Maria, with the tequila on the side.

To me, that's a very good thing, even if it has relatively little to do with any kind of "authentic" version.

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