There’s an image that’s resurfaced lately, a picture from the ‘70s of the menu of a then-burgeoning fast-food restaurant called Taco Bell. And what’s noteworthy about it is not the photos or the definitions or the fact that they used to serve a “Bellburger” (though all those things are funny), but the pronunciation key next to each item. In the 1970s, it seems, Americans required a phonetic guide for such words as tostada (presented as “Toh-stah-dah”), frijoles (“Fre-ho-les”), and the ever-tricky taco (“Tah-co”). It’s a reminder of just how recently these words, numbingly obvious to everyone now, entered into American lexicon.
We laugh, but bartenders have their own version of this, a much more embarrassingly recent version at that, and it’s tequila—not how to say it, but how to use it. These days, tequila is enormous and still growing fast (American consumption of tequila overtook bourbon in 2020), and while every halfway-decent bar in the country has a wealth of tequila and mezcal cocktails now, it’s important to remember that we’re all still playing catch-up.
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To explain: Tequila is completely omitted from the classic cocktail canon, because in the time and place where these cocktails were being created (roughly 1806 to 1919), tequila was no where to be found. It didn’t really show up in America until Prohibition and struggled to gain acceptance for decades—a good barometer of mid-century opinion was David Embury, who in 1948 wrote of tequila that it smelled like “a combination of overripe eggs and limburger cheese” and was only acceptable “in a pinch.” It wouldn’t be until the 1990s that Patrón convinced America that tequila could be anything other than a low-class party shot, and even the great Dale DeGroff, in his The Essential Cocktail in 2008, calls a good tequila drink “one of the holy grails of contemporary bartending” and says things like, “it’s an immense challenge for bartenders to find new tequila drinks.”
Katie Stipe was up to this immense challenge; her Siesta was arguably the first of the agave-based neo-classics and was one of the early drinks to help turn the tide. Stipe is currently the Bar Director of Voysey, in Portland, but in 2006 was a fresh-faced neophyte at NYC’s Flatiron Lounge. It seems clear (to me, anyway) that the Siesta is a bitter take on a Paloma, but Stipe actually got there a different way: She started with a Hemingway Daiquiri—rum, lime, grapefruit, and maraschino liqueur—and ended up “Mr. Potato Head-ing,” as we say, the rum for tequila and the maraschino for Campari. The bar put it on the menu, and it was an immediate smash hit. The Siesta was refreshing, bitter, grassy, and complex, and importantly, something delicious with tequila that wasn’t a Margarita. It was precisely the kind of drink that those early cocktail explorers who flocked to the Flatiron were ready for. It felt sophisticated and new.
What a difference a day makes. Seventeen years later, the Siesta is a bonafide neo-classic, so much so that it can read to modern bartenders, frankly, a little simple. It’s the kind of drink that an aspirational cocktail bar would find too basic to put on a menu, and us bartenders, ever a tinkery bunch, would feel some compulsion to infuse it with coconut or add passion fruit or a couple dashes of makrut lime tincture, or in some other way complicate it.
I obviously understand these instincts (indeed, all those instincts are mine, and I think would all probably be delicious), but like a good nap, the Siesta doesn’t require complication. It opens like a Margarita, with lime and tequila, transitions in the midpalate to the juicy grapefruit, and finishes with the herbal orange of the Campari amplifying grapefruit’s natural bitterness. It’s a lovely drink, complex and dynamic, with seams so tight you can’t even find them. Such things, once revolutionary, are no less delicious for having become common, whether we’re talking about the Siesta cocktail or a bean and cheese burrito (pronounced “Buh-ree-toh”).
1.5 oz. blanco tequila
0.75 oz. lime juice
0.5 oz. grapefruit juice
0.5 oz. simple syrup
0.5 oz. Campari
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake good and hard for six to 10 seconds. Strain up into a coupe or cocktail glass, or over fresh ice on the rocks, as you prefer, and garnish with a grapefruit peel or lime wheel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Tequila: Everyone calls for blanco tequila here, and I echo that. If this were stirred, like the Rosita, perhaps the vanilla richness of an aged tequila would be better. It’s not bad with reposado—it wasn’t bad no matter how I made it—but the bright bite of blanco is better. As for brands, this is another area where I’d demand 100 percent agave (all areas are such areas), but beyond that, I wouldn’t break the bank here. The lither cocktail tequilas, like Real de Valle, Olmeca Altos, or Cimarron, work perfectly.
Campari: Stipe’s original recipe called for a mere 0.25 oz. of Campari, enough for an unmistakable bitter punch, but for my modern, bitter-loving sensibilities, I think a touch too soft. Bumping it to 0.5 oz., as I did above, turns the note into a chord.
Simple Syrup: Take a half cup of sugar and a half cup of water. Combine them. Stir. Done! You have simple syrup. It takes three minutes to make and lasts a month in the fridge.
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