Margaritas get all the attention, but Josh Goldman prefers to celebrate another agave all-star: the Paloma.
“It’s a fantastic cocktail that deserves its place next to the Margarita,” says Goldman, general manager at Bar Caló, a mezcaleria in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Over the years, he’s created multiple versions of the sweet-tart classic, a highball typically made with tequila, grapefruit soda and a squeeze of lime.
“It’s such a great framework for a cocktail,” he says. “The flavors go with just about anything. It’s bulletproof.”
His classic version, which took a top spot in a PUNCH blind tasting, tops tequila and fresh lime with Squirt, a citrus-flavored soda popular in Mexico since the 1950s. A wedge of grapefruit plus a pinch of sea salt are the finishing touches on this classic.
Yet, Goldman’s roster of nontraditional versions shows just how versatile the Paloma blueprint can be. “Grapefruit and agave spirits are best friends,” says Goldman. Softened by effervescence, the combination plays well with a wide range of flavors, from bitter to floral to herbaceous. “You just zhuzh it up a bit and make it your own.”
His Padua Paloma, for example, gives the refresher an Italian accent, supplementing fresh grapefruit juice with bittersweet Aperol (an import from Padua, hence the drink’s name), while black sea salt garnishes the rim. Topped with sparkling water in place of Squirt, the drink becomes a craveable Paloma-spritz mashup.
Meanwhile, the Paloma Rosa, currently on the menu at Bar Caló, adds a floral layer to the mix. Goldman combines rose and grapefruit liqueurs with a small amount of herbal Élicser Combier and fresh grapefruit juice, then accents the drink with a rosy half-rim of Himalayan pink salt.
While the template is easy to work with, Goldman notes that it’s important to keep the core components intact to keep the drink recognizable. “Your agave spirit needs to shine,” he says. “You need some form of grapefruit flavor, and the carbonation.”
Of his many interpretations, the Avocado Paloma stretches the template furthest, swapping in mezcal for tequila and lengthening the fresh grapefruit and lime juices with a fizzy “avocado soda” made with fresh avocado and mineral water in an iSi cream whipper, sweetened with agave syrup. While it took a few iterations to get the soda right, the cocktail came together quickly after that, he recalls. “I just needed to balance the basic frame of the Paloma with the soda.”
Finding that equilibrium is the most important part of making a Paloma riff work, Goldman emphasizes. “A bad Paloma would be anything that throws it out of balance—too sweet, too sour, too strong,” he says. “The secret to life and good cocktails is balance.”