Americans have embraced this date as an excuse to celebrate all things Mexican and gorge on its cuisine and drinks, but the true significance is often misunderstood. May 5 is not Mexican Independence Day as many would believe. Instead, it marks the date of the defeat of the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
It’s a long story. The gist is that by 1861, Mexico was in debt to England, France and Spain after several wars, including their independence from Spain in 1821 and the Civil War in 1858. France, under Napoleon III, decided to go after their money, and a little expansion of the empire wouldn’t hurt. England and Spain decided to stay out of it. President Abraham Lincoln very publicly expressed his sympathy, but the U.S. had its hands full with the Civil War, and so denied assistance. So Napoleon sent Austrian-born Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (debatably a cousin) to lead the French army to invade Mexico and claim it for themselves.
In spring of 1862, the French landed on the Mexican coast. Meanwhile, General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín had time to prepare the Mexican army as they awaited the invasion in the state of Puebla. Well, as prepared as 4,500 soldiers can be when going up against 6,500. On May 5 at forts Loreto and Guadalupe, they succeeded in fending off Maximilian’s troops and halting the succession, thus restoring a sense of national unity and patriotism. Albeit, short-lived.
Napoleon eventually sent more troops and Maximilian was installed as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. By 1867, the Civil War had ended and the U.S. was able to send in military and political reinforcements to expel the French. Maximilian was eventually executed by firing squad.
So Cinco de Mayo is really a way to commemorate a glorious and improbable (if brief) underdog victory. Ironically, in Mexico it is mostly only observed in Puebla. Here in the U.S., we like any excuse to party, especially with a margarita or cerveza. Now that you know the real story, how about celebrating with some fitting Mexi-French spirits and cocktails?
One way is to sip something neat. Several tequilas (usually at least the reposado and/or añejo) are aged in French oak, such as Riazul, Casa Noble, Milagro, Chinaco, Corralejo and El Tesoro. Some also use ex-Cognac barrels, such as Excellia and Maestro Dobel. These mezclas are also aged in French oak: Del Maguey Vida, Los Nahuales and Los Danzantes.
Another way to show your appreciation is with cocktails showcasing Mexican spirits over classic French ingredients.
Sara Kay, The Spir.it