At Canon in Seattle, proprietor Jamie Boudreau is serving a tequila drink from 1930s London that is about as far away from a Margarita as you can get: the Metexa. A quinquina wine–based cocktail from the Café Royal Cocktail Book, the Metexa’s surprising mix of Lillet, tequila and Swedish punsch caught Boudreau’s eye. “There aren’t a ton of great vintage tequila recipes out there that aren’t riffs on the Margarita or Paloma—whenever I come across one that has unusual ingredients, I give it a shot.”
In flipping through the Café Royal Cocktail Book—which Boudreau describes as a rebuttal to the far more famous Savoy Cocktail Book—it quickly becomes clear that the Metexa was a natural product of the bar’s program. Lillet and Swedish punsch were both immensely popular in London during the 1930s, but they were particularly favored at the Café Royal, which featured more than 40 cocktails containing the French aperitif wine and another 30 with Swedish punsch (sometimes referred to as “caloric punch”). Tequila, too, was popular there. At a time when contemporary bars in London and the U.S. were just beginning to use the spirit regularly, the Café Royal had 14 tequila cocktails to its credit, including spirit-forward drinks like the Bullfighter (tequila, Grand Marnier, Hercules aperitif), Matador (tequila, French vermouth, Curaçao) and, of course, the Metexa. Though the recipe is credited to J. E. Mouncer in the book, there is no written explanation as to how the drink got its name.
Comprising two parts Lillet to one part each tequila and Swedish punsch, the obscure classic’s structure might seem odd, but it’s adjacent to other lower-proof drinks of the period, like the Vermouth Cocktail and the Chrysanthemum (dry vermouth, Bénédictine, absinthe), which all adhere loosely to the Improved Cocktail template.
When Boudreau set about adapting the original recipe for Canon, he wanted to ensure the drink was light enough to go on the spring menu while preserving the integrity of the original. He felt that the Lillet was getting overpowered, so he switched the ingredient for another quinquina base, Cocchi Americano, which he says resembles 1930s-era Lillet more than Lillet’s own modern product. The Canon recipe calls for Fortaleza blanco tequila, which contributes a grounding earthiness and citrus undertones to the cocktail though its measure is modest. The Swedish punsch, meanwhile, though sweet, isn’t overpowering and lends a little textural weight to the drink thanks to its arrack and rum base.
Though the original recipe calls for shaking, Boudreau chooses to stir the drink—as most spirituous cocktails are mixed today—and adds a special touch: He throws a grapefruit peel into the mixing glass before stirring, a technique known as the regal stir. The aromatic addition works well because grapefruit commonly stars alongside Swedish punsch (most famously in Harry Craddock’s Diki-Diki, which spotlights the pairing alongside Calvados) and tequila, too (as in a Paloma). In Boudreau’s Metexa, the grapefruit oil from the peel bolsters the subtle bitterness contributed by the Cocchi Americano and punsch. The finished product, garnished with an expressed grapefruit twist, tastes almost like a grapefruit gummy candy.
Boudreau says that he’s surprised by how many guests request a less juicy, less expected tequila cocktail and, with the Metexa up his sleeve, he knows just what to suggest. It’s perfect, he says, “for people that are tired of Margaritas, but want something elegant that packs a little jab.”