The most famous cocktail you’ve never heard of is likely the Cantarito, a deceptively simple mixture of tequila and citrus soda, that has increasingly been planting its flag on bar menus north of the border.
This Jaliscan staple differs from the more widely known Paloma mainly by the vessel in which it’s served: the cantarito. A diminutive of cántaro, or “pitcher,” the traditional squat earthenware cup insulates the drink from the region’s subtropical heat. The mixture might also include orange, lemon or lime juice, and its rim may be dusted with Tajín, chamoy (a piquant sauce made from fruit, chiles and lime) or salt, which is sometimes added to the cocktail itself to balance acidity and sweetness.
As with so many cocktails, the provenance of the Cantarito is murky. “The Cantarito is essentially a Paloma with regional differences,” says Bill Esparza, a James Beard Award–winning food writer. “Mexico has 31 states plus the capital and the cuisine is highly regionalized and colloquialized—the same is true of this cocktail.” He emphasizes that it’s difficult to track down its exact origins, but says the Cantarito likely takes on a more elaborate presentation in Jalisco as a way of effectively marketing tequila.
Its popularity in Mexico is such that in 1997, Cantaritos El Güero, the first bar dedicated exclusively to the drink, opened in Amatitán, near the city of Tequila. At the casual, open-air venue, bartenders have mixed Cantaritos in handmade cántaros, which range in size from chico (small) to extragrande, for more than two decades. Made with fresh lime, native green-skinned oranges and grapefruit juice topped with Squirt citrus soda, the drink is served on ice with a pinch of salt. “It’s like a supercharged Paloma and so damn good,” says Sombra Mezcal founder Richard Betts, who visits the region regularly.
Though El Güero’s cántaros are made specially for the bar, the unglazed jugs historically were used to fetch and store water. But the material properties of the vessels also impact the flavor of the drinks served within. “The alkalinity of the clay neutralizes the acids in the citrus,” says Chris Chamberlain, beverage development manager of E & J Gallo spirits portfolio and Latin American spirits expert. “That said, all sorts of beverages from Mexico to Ecuador are served in a cántaro, including Micheladas, pulque and chicha.”
North of the border, the Cantarito and its namesake vessel are popping up on menus from Los Angeles, to Austin to Chicago. Chamberlain attributes the Cantarito’s rise in popularity Stateside to increased access to Mexico’s indigenous spirits. “With many bartenders traveling to Mexico on educational trips devoted to tequila and mezcal, they’re exposed to local customs and cocktails and bring those experiences back to their bars,” he says. At Coni’Seafood in Inglewood, California, owner Connie Cossio offers a chamoy-and-Tajín-rimmed version at her late father’s Nayarit-style eatery. Daniel Brooks of Austin’s Licha’s Cantina—whose mother was born and raised in Mexico City—swaps Jarritos grapefruit soda for Squirt, and adds a dash of Jugo Maggi, a soy sauce–like condiment.
Ben Fasman, former beverage director and general manager at Dove’s Luncheonette in Chicago, favors a more straightforward interpretation of the original, which he came upon while visiting the Lunazul tequila distillery in 2012. “We’d been working with the jimadores [agave harvesters] in the fields and on the way back to Guadalajara, we passed a roadside stand. You ordered by pointing at which tequila you wanted and they’d chop up some limes, oranges and grapefruit, squeeze them directly into a cántaro, and finish it with a spoonful of salt, [all] topped with Squirt and ice. After hours in the sun, it was as close to perfect as any drink I’d ever tried.”
Back at Dove’s, Fasman played around with a number of variations, including one that called for sherry, bianco vermouth, pineapple juice and tamarind, but found it nearly impossible to improve upon the original, which includes Mexican Squirt made with cane sugar. “The build is so simple,” he says. “I prefer a Cantarito to a Margarita, any day.”