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The Story Behind Bartender Armando Cortes’ Globally-Inspired Paloma Ona

When creating a new cocktail recipe, Armando Cortes follows the Golden Rule: “I think about what I would like to drink,” he says. “One day, I was thinking, ‘If only I had this cocktail… If I saw this on a menu, I would order this drink.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait, I’m a bartender, I can make it on my own!’”

Armando Cortes

It’s unclear what the bartender who made the first Paloma was thinking since it’s up for (lively) debate who that bartender was. Some say a Texan tavern manager concocted the cocktail for his lover. Others say it was invented by the owner of La Capilla, the oldest bar in Tequila, Mexico. In any case, the grapefruit-centric drink has been a longtime staple in Mexico and beyond. 

Cortes, who hails from Oaxaca, named his intermediate-level Paloma “Palom Ona.” Ona means eight in his grandparents’ Oaxacan Mixtec dialect — a reference to the use of Tequila Ocho in the cocktail. The number 8 is significant to the tequila brand in several ways. Tequila Ocho was founded on Aug. 8, 2008, by Tomas Estes and master distiller Carlos Camarena, one of eight siblings. The eighth sample Camarena made for Estes is the one that ultimately became Tequila Ocho. The agave ripens for eight years before being harvested to make the tequila.

“Tequila Ocho has been one of my favorite tequilas from the beginning,” Cortes says. “It is one of the few tequilas that they make very slowly. They care about every step of the process, and they don’t add any additives. They have this phrase that I love: ‘Hecho a mano y corazón’ (made by hand and heart). I think that’s beautiful.”

Cortes now lives in New York City and tends bar at the Mexican-American cocktail bar Superbueno and the Japanese-American izakaya bar Katana Kitten, which both feature on the  50 Best Bars in North America list. This combination of Cortes’ Mexican and Japanese influences converge in the Palom Ona. “I feel like there is always room to improve a classic recipe and make it your own,” he says of breathing new life into a tried-and-true cocktail.

While creating his Palom Ona recipe, Cortes considered the three components that add up to a delicious and harmonious end result. “One is the core, the second is the balance, and the third is the seasoning,” he says. “The core in this case is tequila. The balance is a little bit of sweetness, bitterness, or acidity. And then the third is the seasoning, adding a little bit of dimension.”

The core — and corazon — of the Palom Ona is Tequila Ocho Reposado. “I think you can really taste the Blue Weber Agave plant,” Cortes says. “A lot of tequilas try to hide that with vanilla or caramel [notes]. Tequila Ocho adds a depth and a dimension to the cocktail with a little bit of agave, pepper, and oak.”

Industry standards allow tequila brands to include up to 1 percent of additives and still label themselves “100 percent agave.” But for Tequila Ocho, the label is 100 percent true. The brand does not add any colorings, flavorings, or artificial ingredients to their tequila. Added flavorings would be unnecessary, since the Blue Weber Agave that makes up the tequila — and the care given to the harvesting and distilling processes — produce a natural sweetness, spice, and depth.

For the balancing component, Cortes evened out the sweetness of the agave tequila with the zestiness of lime. Inspired by a flavor he discovered while working at Katana Kitten, he added yuzu-lime juice into the mix. “I never had yuzu in Mexico, so that was a new flavor to me,” he says of his recent discovery. Another key element of the Palom Ona’s flavor is grapefruit cucumber sherbet, made with cucumber water and pink grapefruit peels, to add freshness.

The third component of Cortes’ cocktail, the seasoning, incorporates another Japanese ingredient. Cortes garnished his Palom Ona with a blend of lime zest, Maldon salt, and shichimi togarashi. Shichimi is a Japanese seven-spice mix that includes ginger, seaweed, orange zest, red chili, sesame seeds, and spicy sansho powder made from Sichuan pepper seeds. 

Beyond core, balance, and seasoning, Cortes points out that the way a Paloma is served also makes a major difference. “The Paloma looks simple, and it is a very simple cocktail, but we also have to care a lot about the temperature,” he says. “Carbonation is very important in the Paloma. If you serve a Paloma flat, it’s more of a grapefruit Margarita. These little details are essential when it comes to how you build a cocktail and how you serve it.” Cortes gets the Paloma Ona ready to serve with a tempered ice spear and a grapefruit wedge.

In keeping with the Golden Rule — in this case, to serve drinks to others that he would drink himself — Cortes imagines sipping his Palom Ona while sitting outside on the streets of New York, watching people pass by. He says the cocktail doesn’t have any particular personal story behind it. But with its fusion of Mexican roots, Japanese flavors, and Cortes’ own favorite tequila, it’s clear that he made the Palom Ona by hand and heart.

Armando’s Paloma Ona Recipe


1 ½ ounces Tequila Ocho Reposado
¼ ounce DeGroff Bitter Aperitivo
¾ ounce grapefruit cucumber sherbet*
½ ounce yuzu-lime juice*
Ice spear
Soda water
Rim: shichimi togarashi*
Garnish: grapefruit wedge


Add all ingredients to a thimble measure, except the soda water.
Rim half of a frozen Collins glass with shichimi togarashi mixture.
Add contents of thimble measure to the salted Collins glass.
Top with 3 ounces of soda water.
Add tempered ice spear to the cocktail.
Garnish with a grapefruit wedge.

*Grapefruit Cucumber Sherbet Recipe

100g sugar
50g grapefruit juice
50g cucumber water
3 long peels of pink grapefruit
1 pinch of salt


Cover the bottom of a shallow bowl with sugar.
Press the grapefruit peels into the sugar. Use a muddler to express any moisture and sprinkle a pinch of salt.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap, let it sit for about an hour.
Add grapefruit juice and cucumber water (remove the skin and seeds before juicing) to the peels and sugar, then stir to dissolve the sugar.
Strain into a container through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing all the liquid out.
Keep refrigerated.

*Yuzu-Lime Juice Recipe


¼ ounce yuzu juice
¾ ounce lime juice


Combine both and mix well.
Keep refrigerated.

*Shichimi Togarashi Salt Recipe


1 tablespoon Maldon salt
½ tablespoon shichimi togarashi
Zest from half of a lime


1. Combine all ingredients and mix well.

This article is sponsored by Tequila Ocho.

Drink with a Responsible Hand. Tequila Ocho 40% Alc./Vol., Imported by Ocho Asociados, Bardstown, KY.

The article The Story Behind Bartender Armando Cortes’ Globally-Inspired Paloma Ona appeared first on VinePair.

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