I'm not much of a cocktail drinker. An exception is Labor Day weekend, for reasons I don't fully understand, though I suspect it has something to do with bidding farewell to summer and hello to fall with a classy toast. Another is when I'm in Mexico. There, and here on Labor Day weekend, I'll generally go for a paloma. Like the margarita, it's based on tequila. But unlike the margarita, you can taste the tequila in a paloma Thus, it's the cocktail of choice in Mexico, especially in tequila's home region, Jalisco.
Though tequila has been rising in variety and esteem hereabouts in recent years, the paloma still is difficult to find in local restaurants and bars. An exception is at Centro Cocina Mexicana in midtown Sacramento, where the paloma can be found lurking among the restaurant's extensive margarita menu. It's a pretty decent interpretation, especially if you like the sour bite of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. Grapefruit is another key ingredient of the paloma, but usually it's in the soft drink added to the tequila. (The menu at Centro says its paloma is made with 7Up, but the bartender who mixed ours said he used Sprite, closer to the lemon/lime side of the citrus scale than the grapefruit.)
I recently decided to settle once and for all what kind of soda is best for the paloma. In Mexico, the mixes of choice look to be either Fresca or Squirt. For this experiment, I used the same basic paloma recipe, provided by the Herradura Tequila people: Fill a tall tumbler with ice, add 2 ounces of silver tequila (also called blanco), put in a pinch of salt, squeeze in an ounce of lime juice, toss in a wedge of lime, and fill the glass with around 6 ounces of grapefruit juice or citrus soda. The Herradura folks acknowledge that the cocktail in Mexico generally is made with Fresca, but they claim it is better with Squirt. (So does Lance Cutler of Sonoma, author of "The Tequila Lover's Guide to Mexico and Mezcal.")
I used four kinds of soft drink - Fresca, Squirt, Sprite and Ting. I rated the results on a scale of 1 to 10. The palomas made with Squirt and Ting got my highest ranking, 8 points, primarily because you still could taste and even smell the tequila in each. Both also met the first test of a well-made paloma - it has to be refreshing, with a balance of sweetness and tartness. I also liked the paloma made with Fresca (7 points); it reminded me more of the palomas I've sipped in Mexico than either the Squirt or the Ting, but the soda also seemed to cover the tequila a bit more. The tequila came through in the paloma made with Sprite all right, but the soda tasted flat, without the brightness of citrus.
These palomas were made without salt on the rim. Opinion is divided over whether a paloma should have the salt on the rim, and I'd leave it to personal preference. In Mexico, regardless of whether the rim has salt, the drink almost invariably is served with a straw in the tumbler.
"Paloma" is Spanish for "dove," and the cocktail does have the greenish-gray hue of a mourning dove. But "paloma" also is the name of a corrosive kind of infestation that attacks the bluish-green, swordlike leaves of the agave plant, the prickly succulent from which tequila is distilled, and that also may account for the cocktail's name. That's the nature of the paloma, subject to all sorts of interpretation, but regardless of whether your choice is Squirt, Fresca, Ting, grapefruit juice or some other addition with snap, it's a cocktail worth considering as summer ends and fall begins.