The Mediterranean island of Menorca—the most northern and eastern of Spain’s Balearic Islands—is synonymous with vibrant summer village fiestas, horses and gin. (The latter two define the first.) Over the summer, every town on the island celebrates its patron saint with horses—magnificent black stallions with braided manes and riders in formal finery parading among crowds—and a steady pouring of pomada, a beloved blend of gin and lemonade (or lemon soda) that is long overdue for its stateside arrival.
In the inland market town (population: 4,800) where I have a house, the fiestas take place in mid-July, but at the end of June a municipal officer reads out a proclamation (pregón) announcing their official beginning, after which the town hall serves residents the year’s first pomada—some 160 liters (40 gallons) worth this year—as the village band plays. Two weeks of events build to a raucous final weekend that includes exceptional horsemanship and nonstop socializing. Many houses in the village are open as friends and acquaintances pass from one to another, chatting and being served—without exception—small glasses of pomada, usually dipped from a bowl with a small ladle. Refreshing and icy cold, a touch tart from local lemons and fragrant with the aromatic, light-bodied Menorcan gin, it goes down easily.
Gin has long been the island’s official spirit. Production in Menorca is unique to the Balearic Islands, and stems from its historical links with Britain, which ruled for much of the 18th century. Distilling the spirit from wine, Menorcans began making gin for sailors to consume in the port’s bars—and kept doing so after the fleet finally sailed away for the last time in 1802.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Xoriguer, located at the end of Mahón’s port, has been the leading producer. Made in centuries-old wood-fired copper stills with juniper berries from the Catalan Pyrenees, flavored with local herbs and stored in oak barrels until bottling, it’s a dry, herbaceous gin with a pronounced taste of juniper—flavors that give pomada its distinctive taste. For islanders, pomada is not pomada without Xoriguer gin.
Despite its ubiquity across the island, pomada is a relatively recent creation. Few villagers recall its presence before the 1970s, but by the end of that decade, it had become a calling card for the region during the fiesta season (think Munich and beer during Oktoberfest). Before its arrival, gin was usually drunk a palo seco (neat), or with some sifón (soda water). A possible clue to pomada's origins can be found in a 15-year-old article in the local newspaper. That story credits an alcoholic barman who hid his gin problem from his wife by putting the liquor in carbonated lemon soda, a combination he started serving in the establishment he ran in Mahón. He christened it pomada, or “ointment.” Just don’t ask for it by that name in Ciutadella, the elegant onetime capital in the west, where they insist on calling it gin amb llimonada (“gin with lemonade”). Ask for a pomada there, and you’ll inevitably be directed to the nearest pharmacy.
The classic proportions are one part gin to three parts fresh lemonade or lemon soda—Kas or the slightly sweeter Fanta are the most common selections—or a blend of freshly squeezed juice and soda. While originally served on the rocks, in the past few years it has become common to serve as a granita. At home, this is done by mixing the ingredients in an empty 1.5-liter plastic water bottle or a 2-liter soda bottle and popping it into the freezer. The bottles can either be removed before they are completely frozen, shaking to get the slushy ice crystals, or left to freeze completely and pulled out a couple of hours in advance. The latter is particularly common when households prepare 60 or 80 liters of pomada to serve during the main weekend of the fiestas.
While mixing gin with lemon juice is hardly novel, pomada stands apart for its inherently sharable nature. It is, first and foremost, a party drink. While pomada can be made as an individual serving—some bars simply pour gin and lemon soda over ice and garnish with a lemon slice—few people do so. Instead, it’s prepared as a batch to be shared with others. But only in summer. Once mid-September hits, pomada simply disappears. Yet for those three or four sunny months, the drink reigns supreme.
At a friend’s place during the recent fiestas, I overheard the host say, “It seems like fewer people in the house this year.” Her husband looked around at the dozen or so standing in the living room at that moment with small paper cups, and replied, “Perhaps, but we’ve already served 50 liters of pomada today.”