The Cuba Libre by Way of Mexico: La Batanga Cocktail

In the small town of Tequila, Mexico, the sunflower-yellow façade of La Capilla, one of the oldest cantinas in the state of Jalisco, stands out on a quiet corner of drab, single-story buildings. La Capilla, or “the chapel,” was known, as legend has it, for people coming in on their feet and leaving on their knees. It is here that Don Javier Delgado Corona kept post behind the bar for almost 70 years, and where he served La Batanga, his take on the Charro Negro, a cult addition to the roster of classic Mexican cocktails.

The Charro Negro is Mexico’s counter to the Cuba Libre, replacing the rum with tequila and adding, in the local tradition, a salted rim. “You can’t even really call it a cocktail,” says Pedro Jiménez Gurría, a partner in Cantina de la O in Guadalajara, Jalisco’s capital. “It is a preparation and a tremendously simple one at that.”

Coca-Cola, redolent of cinnamon and citrus, gained widespread acceptance in mid-20th century Mexico. It was around this time, the late 1950s or the early 1960s (no one remembers exactly), that Don Javier served his first Batanga. During that era, the cantina doled out its highballs in a six-sided glass. According to Fabián Delgado Padilla, the chef of palReal in Guadalajara and the great-nephew of Don Javier, the drink got its name when a customer, after a few rounds of Charro Negros, renamed the drink “batanga” for the bamboo-raft shape the glass conjured if one were to cut it in half. The name stuck, even if the glassware is long gone.

There are two tricks to making Don Javier’s Batanga, says Delgado. “Use good salt: a sea salt or a medium-grind salt that tastes good. And most importantly, it’s not a Batanga if you don’t stir the drink with the knife you used to cut the limes.”

Though it’s a dead-simple drink, the few ingredients maintain balance: The clove and vanilla notes of the Coca-Cola are amplified by the oily spritz of lime, while the escarchado glass, frosted with salt, counters the sweetness. But more than the physical experience of the drink, going out for a Batanga “was just an excuse to go see Don Javier at La Capilla, because La Capilla is Don Javier and the Batanga is him,” says Jiménez.

In other words, La Batanga is a cocktail with a DOP of sorts: of time, place and its creator. And when Don Javier passed away in 2020, at 95, part of the vibrancy of La Capilla died with him. At my bar, Cicatriz, in Mexico City, we honor his legacy with a version of the drink bearing a splash of Ancho Reyes liqueur, the raisiny smoke of the ancho chile acting as ballast for the sweetness of the Coke. It’s built in the glass and mixed with a bar knife.

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