For a cocktail named after a couple of combative men, the Pancho Villa is surprisingly gentle. “This is a sweet one and must be very cold,” advises Charles H. Baker in The Gentleman’s Companion, the itinerant writer’s booze-infused travelogue. He came across the mixture of gold rum, dry gin, two fruit brandies and pineapple juice on a 1926 excursion through the Philippines.
In this same era, the country, a U.S. protectorate at the time, produced one of its all-time best fighters: Francisco Villaruel Guilledo, an undersized dynamo better known by his boxing moniker, Pancho Villa. But unlike the better-known Mexican revolutionary with whom he shares a name, the boxer, along with his namesake cocktail, hasn’t enjoyed much notoriety. All the more reason for bartender Marlo Gamora to excavate the drink, and Filipino cocktail heritage at large, and bring it up to date.
A Manila-born, New York–based bartender and consultant, Gamora helped develop the beverage program for Jeepney, the influential Manhattan Filipino bar and restaurant where he put the Pancho Villa on the menu. “I was digging into records, trying to find anything that came from the Philippines, or had some sort of Filipino lineage,” he says.
Baker’s book, a compendium of pre–World War II international cocktails predating the later Filipino-led tiki movement, scratched a very specific itch. Like the Manila Hotel Julep, another forgotten drink from the Philippines, the Pancho Villa was credited to Monk Antrim, an American who catered to Yankee tourists and military personnel in the Philippines in the early 20th century. But while the Illinois-born frontman gets the historical credit, it’s fairly clear that a Filipino created it. “Monk Antrim’s Chino Number One whipped this one up in [Pancho Villa’s] honour,” Baker notes, not bothering to record the bartender’s actual name.
In addition to bringing the forgotten formula into the conversation, Gamora saw his recipe as an opportunity to highlight his home country’s proud pugilistic tradition. “Filipinos love their boxing,” he says. “It’s part of Filipino history to talk about Pancho Villa.” A world champion who notched nearly 100 victories in his brief career, the 5-foot-1 Visayan fought as a flyweight, a class that maxes out at 112 pounds. Though he was one of the sport’s most dominant figures at the time, Villa is rarely talked about with the same reverence as other Filipino legends, like Manny Pacquiao, in part because he died at just 23 years old due to complications from an infected tooth.
To properly honor Villa’s legacy in liquid form, however, Gamora knew he had to improve upon Baker’s recollection of the cocktail, which shares a few ingredients with the Singapore Sling. “It was just so off—not balanced at all,” he says. “It was just too much gin. So I decided I had to adjust a lot of the proportions to make it palatable for today.”
While the original featured rum, apricot brandy and gin in equal parts, he decided to make full-bodied, aged Venezuelan rum the dominant ingredient, casting the other spirits into half-ounce supporting roles. “I wanted to bring in aged rum for the complexity, but it had to still be dry enough to withstand the other spirits, and complement them as well,” Gamora says.
Elsewhere, the Pancho Villa in Baker’s pages called for a mere teaspoon of pineapple juice; Gamora upped that measure to three-quarters of an ounce, then added a touch of fresh lime to incorporate some acid to counteract the sweetness of the Cherry Heering, which he subs in for cherry brandy.
As a finishing touch, the original Pancho Villa is garnished with a stuffed olive, offering a hit of saline that Gamora describes as “a must.” But, he insists, there’s a better way to deliver it, so he serves his drink with a hot side of lumpia—Filipino spring rolls.