Agua fresca is an ancient beverage first made by the Aztecs, who muddled the drink from fruit found along the Tenochtitlán waterways. Those waterways would one day become Mexico City, where street-cart vendors now dole out colorful cups of tamarind, jamaica, horchatas, and other fresh-flavored agua frescas.
As the drinks’ name, which translates to “fresh water,” may imply, “agua fresca is a light, refreshing drink usually made from fruit, flowers, or seeds,” says Christian Tellez, the bar manager at Rosie Cannonball in Houston. “Typically, we macerate some kind of flower or fruit with water and often sugar.”
“Agua fresca really embodies what Mexican cuisine is: fresh, simple, adventurously flavorful, and delicious,” says Judy Elahi, the bar director at Michelin-starred Gravitas in Washington, D.C.
Jim Meehan, the beverage director at Snow Peak and Takibi in Portland, Oregon, was introduced to agua fresca in Guadalajara, where, he says, “It’s common to have tamarind, hibiscus, and horchata available, along with seasonal agua frescas prepared with fresh fruits like watermelon and ferments like tepache at markets, restaurants, and bars.” Inspired, he now creates drinks balancing earthy white spirits with agua de jamaica [hibiscus], agave, and lime.
Just Add Alcohol
The appeal of agua fresca to a bar crowd is multilayered. First, consider the drink’s purpose. These ice-cold Mexican infusions are meant to be quaffed and make the heat more bearable. Sound like something you want to spike? Absolutely.
Second, recipes vary greatly from street vendor to street vendor, and there are few hard-and-fast recipe requirements; the drink simply needs to be slightly sweet, super-refreshing, and, ideally, seasonal. Some are pure, bright, and focused and others are sweet and stacked with ingredients, while additional options are full-bodied and almost milky.
“One of the biggest benefits of agua fresca is that you get to work with expressive, seasonal, fresh ingredients,” says Collin Nicholas, a Portland, Oregon restaurateur who recently opened the disco-hued Pink Rabbit. You can stay traditional or tweak your frescas with flavors in step with your region or program.
Elahi developed a company-wide agua fresca program across 101 Hospitality’s entire portfolio, using mostly local fruits to create a range of cocktails, both traditional and zero-ABV. She advises that if you’re making a shaken cocktail with agua fresca, be sure to make it quickly and beware of over-dilution, since agua fresca is already fairly diluted.
“With a well-known and -liked refresher like agua fresca that has these interchangeable components, you can use what we call the ‘Mr. Potato Head” theory of mixing drinks, where components are substituted (an eye for an eye) or new ingredients are added thoughtfully to create a new look,” says Meehan. “Using another analogy, drink recipes function like jazz standards. Bartenders play and often improvise upon them for their guests.”
Choosing Flavor Combinations
Agua frescas come in many forms. The aforementioned agua de jamaica is one classic flavor. Or you can take the gooey pulp of a tamarind pod (or canned tamarind) and sweeten it for an agua fresca with a punchy earthiness. Horchata, white rice or ground nuts soaked in water and milk and spiked with cinnamon and sugar, offers a sweet creaminess with subtle baking spice.
“Similar to developing any cocktail recipe, it’s important to understand the qualities of your spirit selection. The profile of each spirit will have affinities towards specific agua fresca flavors,” says Nicholas. He finds that a citrus-forward gin will balance out the fresh flavors of a watermelon agua fresca, while a mezcal with undertones of tropical fruit will pair well with guava and pineapple agua frescas.
Meehan prefers to keep his agua frescas within Mexican parameters. “I tend to stick to these as canonical recipes and improvise conservatively, with Mexican mixers, typically,” he says.
Meehan will mirror agua fresca’s non-alc nature by using a spiritless distillate, Wilderton’s Earthen, to complement a classic jamaica agua fresca. “Earthen mixes like a heady resinous perfume, which works perfectly with agua de jamaica, the tart acidity and cherry/cranberry fruit of which is perfect to aromatize,” he says, adding that it's also great with a single-village mezcal.
At Damian in Los Angeles, bartender Yana Volfson (who is also the beverage director at Cosme and Atla in New York) also employs agua fresca as a thoughtful non-alcoholic option, making one with fresh pineapple and canela (Mexican cinnamon) and spiking it with passion fruit.
Tellez makes his traditional agua de jamaica by adding hot water to hibiscus leaves and letting them steep. “I typically add sugar, preferably piloncillo or brown sugar to taste, and some water to dilute it,” he says. He’ll pair agua frescas like these with vodka or gin, although according to him, mezcal is the power move. “The savory and smoky flavors pair great with the tart and fruity flavors of agua de jamaica,” he says.
Elahi echoes this thought. “Agua fresca screams to be paired with agave spirits, white rum, gin, and white brandies,” she says, adding that her favorite combination is mezcal with a slightly spiced watermelon agua fresca and a touch of saline.
Nicholas leans toward “the more savory cereal- and grain-based agua frescas, like horchata,” he says. He pairs a miso-based horchata with gin, balancing it with splashes of coconut cream, lemon, lychee juice, and yellow curry tincture.
Alexis Ramirez of Macao Trading Company in New York makes a horchata base with raw rice, hazelnuts, water, and cinnamon sticks. He lets it sit in the refrigerator overnight, blends and strains it, then adds vanilla extract, almond milk, and agave syrup. Once he has his base, he’ll simply pour it over ice with some reposado tequila.
At Lona, Marla White looks to darker spirits but keeps agua fresca’s Mexican roots in mind by working with Abasolo (a Mexican corn-based whiskey) and Nixta corn liqueur, plus a splash of Rumchata and some cinnamon for good measure. The resulting drink is fluffy and textured, with a solid spirit backbone.
Meanwhile, at A.O.C. in New York and Los Angeles, head bartender Ignacio Murillo serves a version of the horchata he makes at home for his kids on heavy ice with El Dorado rum and lemon juice. “Los Angeles has a big culture of different types of horchata, and everyone has their favorite recipe,” he says.
You can instead choose to abandon tradition entirely. Elahi makes agua fresca with Anjou pears, lemon, ginger, and purple cabbage. “The combination tastes semi-tropical in flavor because the pear balances out the earthiness of the cabbage,” she says. “I also love to add sea buckthorn, an antioxidant-rich berry from the Himalayas, to add acidity to my agua frescas.”
Whether you choose to hew close to tradition or explore new flavors, “The key is keeping it simple, fresh, and seasonal,” says Nicholas.