Here at The Drunkard’s Almanac we’ll be mixing up the Oaxaca Old Fashioned to enjoy National Tamale Day on March 23, an annual celebration of, you guessed it, tamales. And we’re talking about the tasty food item, not the city of Tamal, Ghana, Africa, nor Tamail, the ruler of Biemmyes circa 400 AD.
There’s no such thing as a bad day for a tamale but it only gets the National Day once each year. Before we get to the Oaxaca Old Fashioned recipe, though, let’s take a moment in honor of the tamale itself. We’ve got more to cover than the overused “chili today, hot tamale.”
Just as we assumed you already knew what a cat is when we discussed the Martinez cocktail for World Cat Day, we figure you likely know what a tamale is. But what you may not realize is how long they’ve been around. Tamales originated in Mesoamerica, meaning southern North America and Central America around 8000-5000 BC. That’s not long at all after the concepts of organized farming and domesticated animals came to light. The Aztec and Maya civilizations, as well as the Olmec and Toltec before them like tamales for their portability. So with that kind of longevity and go-anywhere style you know they’ve got to be good.
Now, for native English speakers, we should also note that the term tamale is an anglicized version of tamal, the proper singular form in Spanish. Somehow us English speakers interpreted the -e- as part of the stem rather than part of the plural suffix -es. Keep that in mind when you are asking for a single tamal, but who among us would really order only one?
But back to the tamales. Whether meaty or cheesy, spicy or mild, steamed in corn husks or banana leaves, the only incontrovertible element of a tamal is the corn flour used: masa. Masa is a dough made out of nixtamalized corn. That means the corn has been dried and cooked in an alkaline solution, typically limewater, and then hulled. This is a Good Thing: its nutritional value is increased, the flavor improves and it’s more easily ground into a flour.
Past that it’s a matter of filling and steaming for your basic tamal. Meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables, chiles…all fair game to go inside. In Mexico the wrapper is usually a corn husk, but as you travel further south banana leaves become more common.
The Oaxaca Old Fashioned
Of course while the tamales are steaming you’ll need something to drink. And this is where we’ll employ agave spirits in the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. As you would probably guess from the name alone, it’s a variation on the classic, whiskey-based Old Fashioned.
The drink was invented by Phil Ward at Death & Co. in New York, circa 2007. You met Mr. Ward in our celebration of Mr. Potato Head’s birthday, and the Oaxaca Old Fashioned is just that – a Mr. Potato Head variation on the Old Fashioned. Mr. Ward is something of an agave spirits expert, and after his time at Death & Co. he opened an unfortunately now closed bar, Mayahuel, centered on tequila and mezcal.
Some say this Oaxaca Old Fashioned played a key role in kicking off widespread interest in mezcal. Prior to that time most folks only knew as an evil spirit from their college days, if at all.
While the base of the drink is tequila, it’s the mezcal floated on top that provides an element of smokiness. You really do want to use a reposado (i.e. “rested”) rather than white (completely unaged) tequila, but you don’t have to break out the fancy viejo (“old” or aged) bottle.
The recipe as written in the Death & Co. book calls for mixing the ingredients and serving it up in a stemmed cocktail glass. We present the version usually seen in the wild, over ice in the manner of a classic Old Fashioned. Have at it whichever way you choose.
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
- Old Fashioned Glass
- 1½ oz Tequila Use a reposado, i.e. briefly aged, tequila here. Much better than an unaged white tequila.
- ½ oz Mezcal
- 1 tsp Agave nectar If you don't have the agave nectar (which is often labeled syrup) you can just use simple syrup.
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Garnish: Orange twist
- This is one you can simply assemble in your glass. Add Angostura bitters and reposado tequila to your Old Fashioned glass over ice, preferably a lage cube.
- Stir briefly to chill.
- Float mezcal on top and stir briefly.
- Express twist over drink and place in glass.
- Eat another tamale.