The Paloma is a simple drink — at least in theory. The refreshing cocktail’s recipe calls for 2 ounces of blanco tequila, 1 ounce of fresh lime juice, an optional pinch of salt, and a top-off of grapefruit soda. However, the last of these specs has sparked major debate among bartenders and Paloma die-hards.
For some, the grapefruit soda that polishes off a Paloma must be Squirt, other alternatives be damned. Created in Phoenix in 1938, Squirt touted its effectiveness as a mixer in highballs for decades due to its citrus notes. Its light yet zippy flavor first gained a reputation for being a key ingredient in a Paloma in Mexico, and later on in the United States when the cocktail it shines in started popping up on American menus around the start of the 21st century. Plenty of imbibers and bar professionals have no problem vouching for its reputation.
“I haven’t really found a replacement for Squirt,” explains David Colgate, lead mixologist at ARLO in San Diego. “It has this one-of-a-kind citrusy sweetness that gives it this tang that counterbalances the tequila’s sweet notes so well. It makes me think of relaxing in Mexico every time I have one.”
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Others don’t maintain such an allegiance. In some cases, they can’t: Squirt isn’t available nationwide, and it isn’t even sold in New York City, the mothership of the American cocktail scene. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the soft drink space, as brands that aren’t in the Coke or Pepsi portfolio tend to be regionalized. Squirt falls into this category despite being owned by national conglomerate Keurig Dr. Pepper. This situation tends to compel bartenders without access to Squirt to lean into the drink’s unfussy nature. “A Paloma is so simple, and that simplicity makes it a classic,” explains Genesis Cruz, head bartender at Bar Belly in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood. “When it works, it works.”
This naturally sparks questions. How important is Squirt to a Paloma? Are Squirt enthusiasts who insist on using the soda being snobs, or do they simply appreciate something that others cannot? Why do people make such a fuss over a delicious libation that seems inherently difficult to screw up? As interest in tequila and tequila-based cocktails continues to skyrocket, it feels like answers are in order.
Why Soda Matters in a Paloma
At baseline, some type of grapefruit soda must appear in a Paloma, whether it be Squirt, another citrus soda like Jarritos or Ting, or a homemade mix of grapefruit juice and club soda. This is due to a soda’s carbonation, which gives the cocktail more intensity. This is a lesson that some bartenders learned the hard way back in the day. “In the early days of the craft cocktail movement, some bartenders pushed back on using soda and insisted on just using straight grapefruit juice instead,” says Aaron Defeo, co-owner and bar director of Little Rituals in Phoenix. “But honest to God, those versions weren’t that great. The carbonation of a soda elevates the rest of the drink’s flavors. Grapefruit juice by itself doesn’t have that impact.”
The importance of carbonation makes consistently using Squirt in a bar program problematic. While Defeo is a self-professed Squirt fan who appreciates its history and its ties to the city he works in, he uses house-made grapefruit soda to make his bar’s Paloma. The reason is purely practical: “You’d be hard-pressed to find a bar manager willing to deal with a SKU for a soda that’s used for just one drink,” he says. “We don’t have it on a [soda] gun, and you can’t bring in bottles of it because bottled sodas start to lose carbonation and go flat once they’re opened.”
“Drinking Squirt is just part of Southern California culture. It’s why if you’re in Southern California, Squirt is expected in a Paloma.”
Still, Defeo always makes sure his bar has a few cans of Squirt tucked away behind his bar just in case insistent patrons arrive. “We occasionally do have people ask for Squirt in their Paloma because they love Squirt,” he says. “I’ll tell them, ‘Well, I love Squirt, too! We’ll do that for you.’”
A Sense of Place
The loyalty to Squirt isn’t necessarily a snobby insistence; some of it stems from nostalgia. For Colgate, a lifetime of living in the San Diego area, making trips to Baja California, and being so close to Mexico made drinking Squirt — with and without tequila — a ritual of sorts. “It’s almost like living in Italy, where every village has its own amaro that everyone drinks,” he says. “Drinking Squirt is just part of Southern California culture. It’s why if you’re in Southern California, Squirt is expected in a Paloma.”
“You can’t be an absolute stickler. As long as you’re building off a grapefruit soda profile, you’re fine.”
This works the opposite way, too. New York’s lack of Squirt provides the city with no frame of reference to know whether it makes or breaks a Paloma. This suits the bar community just fine. “New York’s a unique place,” says Cruz. “We run by our own rules, which gives us the leeway to make things our way and deviate from the norm. If you don’t have certain ingredients, you need to use your environment and get creative and maybe try to make something even better.”
Bar Belly’s take on a Paloma demonstrates the city’s penchant for alteration. It augments the drink’s build of blanco tequila, lime, grapefruit, and house-carbonated club soda with gin, cardamom, and coriander. “We love how the gin’s juniper works with the other ingredients,” Cruz says. “We know the drink won’t work for everyone, but it works here and that’s fine for us.”
A Harmonious Existence
The Paloma served at Bar Belly stretches the drink’s parameters. It also builds on the cocktail’s classic specs instead of swapping out ingredients, resulting in a uniquely refreshing iteration of the drink. This version may irritate a few Paloma purists, especially if they’re already insisting on Squirt, but it doesn’t irritate all of them. “You can’t be an absolute stickler,” Colgate says. “As long as you’re building off a grapefruit soda profile, you’re fine.” And even though Colgate prefers Squirt in his Palomas, he’s also quick to acknowledge the work that Cruz and other bartenders like her can do when they’re forced to improvise — something that can ultimately make the Paloma’s Squirt debate irrelevant. “We have the privilege of having Squirt available in Southern California,” he says. “But, if a place doesn’t have access to Squirt, they have the privilege of getting creative and putting their own stamp on a Paloma. If the drink they create is good, it’s not worth the snootiness.”