Lulú Martínez Ojeda, winemaker at Bruma Valle de Guadalupe, is adamant that anything in the glass besides tequila, grapefruit soda, and ice absolutely kills the spirit of the drink.

“I feel like we’re betraying what a Paloma should be,” she says from the office of her winery, articulating her stance that any attempt to update or riff on the Paloma’s fast-and-easy highball format misses the point of the cocktail entirely. “It can’t be gluten-free, vegan, you know, it has to be dirty. Paloma is a cantina drink.”

David Suro-Piñera, the president of Siembra Azul Tequila, on the other hand, has a different take. The key ingredient in his ideal Paloma? Fresh grapefruit juice.

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“For me, Paloma is a representation,” he says. “It’s a cultural representation of a cocktail that is being transcended.” Suro-Piñera says he loves seeing bartenders riff on a tried-and-true formula that’s near and dear to his heart. He specifically name-checks the Paloma served at De La O Cantina in his home state of Jalisco, which is made with, to quote the bar’s menu, “really good” grapefruit syrup.

“The diversity of conversations we can have with that cocktail is beautiful,” he says.

The Paloma, in its most basic form, is exactly what Martínez describes: an incredibly simple two-part combination of tequila and grapefruit soda. It’s an outrageously versatile template, which means it’s been the source of both endless inspiration and endless controversy.

“It’s tricky because when I go to a bar and I see that they have a take on it, I’m like, ‘Oh, interesting,’” Martínez says, adding “but I can’t help but be disappointed.”

Quick and Easy

Like all things that are simple, tasty, and just make intuitive sense, the exact origin story of the Paloma is very difficult to pin down. Authorship is often attributed to the late Don Javier Delgado Corona and his legendary watering hole, La Capilla, in Tequila, a town that’s the namesake for the spirit itself. This origin story, however, was disputed by Don Javier himself, even as he took credit for creating the Paloma’s cola-based cousin, the Batanga.

The actual origin of the drink most likely dates back to 1955 or shortly thereafter when Squirt, a popular grapefruit soda invented in Phoenix in 1938, made its Mexican debut. From there it became a crowd-pleasing favorite in dive bars, at family gatherings, and with the potentially still- underage — basically anyone without the time, cash, or inclination to mix anything too complicated.

“We all grew up drinking New Mix. It was cheap. They sold it everywhere. And so that taste, we have it in our brains. I’m not saying I think it’s good, but that’s what we drank.”

“I think Paloma is what we all drank because it was just like Squirt and tequila,” says Martínez. “We were students and we wanted to get drunk quickly.” One of the few things she and Suro-Piñera have in common when it comes to this cocktail is the wistful smile they get when recalling Palomas drunk in younger times.

“Palomas were very popular, especially in big events, big fairs, or some very casual restaurants,” Suro-Piñera says. The fact that grapefruit soda and tequila were available and affordable in most places in Mexico cemented its popularity, and before long the Paloma was everywhere.

Then, the mutations started.

For all that she’s a hardline purist when it comes to ingredients, Martínez looks back fondly on a branded Paloma from her youth called New Mix, a pre-packaged offering from El Jimador that takes the original’s highball format and does it one better, putting the entire cocktail into a ready-to-drink can. The drink debuted in 1997 and Martínez still credits its memorable combination of sugar and acidity with ruining any Paloma that doesn’t have a slight whiff of the artificial. “We all grew up drinking New Mix,” she says. “It was cheap. They sold it everywhere. And so that taste, we have it in our brains. I’m not saying I think it’s good, but that’s what we drank.”

Prep-Heavy and Labor-Intensive

Even while the Paloma enjoyed decades of popularity in Mexico it remained relatively unknown by its northern neighbor until the mid-2000s. That’s when the simple versatility of a grapefruit/tequila highball crossbred with a nascent craft cocktail revival. Before long, their offspring were everywhere.

“I love to see the creativity here on this cocktail. To see the level of enthusiasm and motivation that you have in bartenders to create around those very basic ingredients, it’s so much fun.”

One of the first substitutions in many of these riffs was fresh grapefruit juice for soda (much to Suro-Piñera’s delight to be sure). Mezcal, another darling of mid-aughts mixologists, also found its way into a number of early updates. From there, the experiments continued.

Today, a quick query on Google returns results for a milk-washed Paloma, a Paloma topped with sparkling rosé made popular by none other than Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a Pisco Paloma, a vodka-based Paloma with a vanilla salt rim, a Winter Paloma with cranberry and pomegranate, and a Paloma that employs Cherry Heering and Pineapple Juice.

“I love to see the creativity here on this cocktail,” Suro-Piñera says. “To see the level of enthusiasm and motivation that you have in bartenders to create around those very basic ingredients, it’s so much fun.”

Interestingly, though, now that the modern cocktail renaissance is solidly in its 20s, there are signs the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

“I think there’s variations of the Paloma that I’ve made that I love, and I don’t think, in my head, qualify as a Paloma any longer,” says Max Reis, the beverage director at Mírate in LA. It’s a particularly interesting take considering he makes what is possibly the most complex and involved (his word is “douchiest”) Paloma variation to ever see daylight.

The Tu Compa requires sake, force carbonation, and “pulque paint,” a house-made derivative of a fermented agave beverage that sits on the rim of the finished product. Reis explains that all this is in service of recreating the spirit of a cocktail that, at its core, is a simple, pleasing drink. So while the “soda” part of his cocktail does use fresh grapefruit juice to begin with, Reis’s is clarified and reinforced with oil from grapefruit peels, bringing the final result back around to its original source material: a simple grapefruit drink invented in Phoenix in 1938.

“There’s a Squirt team and there’s a Fresca team.”

“That’s why I think mine hits more like a Paloma, because it’s actually relying more on essential oils and less on juice,” he says.

At the end of the day, every great cocktail is just a template for hundreds of others, and the simpler and more versatile the original, the more variations there are going to be. Much like the ever-raging “Is it a sandwich?” debate, how far a new creation can stray from the original and still call itself a Paloma is often a matter of personal interpretation.

Interestingly, though, while it’s difficult to pinpoint the Paloma’s DOB and nearly impossible to catalog its millions of offspring, we can say with almost 100 percent certainty that the first mutation, the original evolutionary split in this drink, happened in 1966. That was the year that Mexicans were introduced to Fresca.

“There’s a Squirt team and there’s a Fresca team,” Martínez says, describing the bitter rivalry that resulted from this schism. And it’s on this point and this point alone that her originalist Paloma principals waiver.

“The people that have a higher palate will… never have a Squirt,” she says with a laugh. She’s team Fresca all the way.