Updated: May 5
Mexico isn’t just margaritas and tequila shots. The Spanish, Mayan and Aztec cultures greatly shaped the way Mexicans drink today – from the ingredients plucked from the Earth to the ancient medicinal and spiritual uses. From pox to pulque, Mexico has a lot of fantastic drinks that it is time for the rest of the world to discover.
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Affectionately regarded as “horse semen” to travelers and bloggers, this milky white, effervescent drink has been popularly accepted in modern day society in Mexico City and other central Mexican towns, but originates from millenia ago, in the pre-Hispanic era.
Pulque is known as the “Nectar of the Gods”, and was often served only to the Aztec emperor and his priests. It is thought that the Spanish conquerors eventually bastardized the name ‘pulque’ from the Ancient Aztec word poliuhquioctli, which loosely translated is a spoiled or rotten wine.
Upon tasting this beverage for the first time, served often in clay pots, beer mugs or Styrofoam (because everyone wants their horse semen “to go”), it evokes a sensation of disgust – maybe the Aztecs were right about the rotten part.
However peculiar the viscous, starchy looking liquid appears, it comes in a variety of flavors from coconut to tamarind to vanilla, attracting even the most cautious drinker with its palette of cream, orange, pink and other exotic fruits hues. At 4-8% alcohol, even your grandmother can try this stuff.
Unlike its ancient cousins Mezcal and Tequila, Pulque is a fermented beverage, rather than distilled. It comes from the sap of Maguey plant, more commonly known as Agave.
Fun fact - the maguey plant can take eight to 12 years to reach maturity and produce ‘aguamiel’ sap and only a matter of hours after ‘castration’ of the plants leaves to complete the fermentation process.
Unsurprisingly, the Mayans and Aztecs and even modern day Mexicans find ways to benefit from every bit of these plants that mother nature provides.
But mama Mayahuel (the Goddess or ‘nurturing mother’ of Maguey), provides a whopping list of benefits particularly from pulque’s fermented goodness. From medicinal uses to bulking up your bedroom fervor, pulque has shown the indigenous people of the central Mexican states the power of its roots. And bonus to nursing Mom’s out there – a cup of this good stuff will promote healthier lactation!
Pulque has seen an ebb and flow of popularity over the centuries, gathering celebration and disdain for the spirit. During the Mexican Independence War and even more recent times, pulque unsettled its citizens, who cited ties to criminal behavior, health and declining social problems. Despite the fall from grace, pulque – once the “nectar of the gods” in the emperor’s hands, now holds a beloved spot in the hearts of Mexico City residents from hipsters to grandparents as a reminder of the past, or at least a fun nightcapper, once more.
Maybe you like kombucha, or trying strange things that others haven’t. In any event, put this at the top of your list to seek out on any adventure in Mexico City.
Where to find it: The Roma Neighborhood in Mexico City at La Pulqueria
Take a tour:
This tour takes you to a pulque farm where you also get to enjoy lunch!
Pox, pronounced “Posh”, is one of the Yucatan’s best kept secrets from ancient Mayan days. A ceremonial beverage and symbol of brotherhood, Pox played a very important role in Mayan times and is seeing a resurgence in the hipster havens and bars of Merida, in the Yucatan peninsula.
Handmade from corn, this spirit is served ice cold as a sipping tipple or in various cocktails and coffee drinks. Smooth fire is comforted by the exciting flavor options such as Almendra (almond), Sabor de Café (coffee), Sabor de Coco (coconut) and Vainilla (vanilla) offered at Merida’s Posheria – half retail store, half cafe. The walls are lined with hundreds of bottles of varying sizes and handbags and jewelry offer visitors another reason to linger a bit.
Shrouded in mysticism and spiritual ties, Pox has no real ‘recipe’ or even a designation within the Mexican government. Corn, wheat and sugar cane is fermented for a week or so and often ties production timelines to the lunar phases, symbolizing new beginnings.
Originating somewhere in the highlands of the Chiapas, the tether to life phases is also quite strong. The cycle of life, the healing and medicinal attributes, all give the Pox spirit a ‘spirit’ of its own. It is used heavily in the religious ceremonies, but nowadays is finding its way into bars and tourism markets beyond the Yucatan in places like California, Texas and larger Mexican cities.
Where to find it: Posheria, Merida
Pair it with this jam packed market tour!
Michelada Aka The Bloody Mary of Beer
A great morning beverage or hangover cure, the ‘Michelada’ is a bloody mary style
beverage including the simple ingredients of light beer, hot sauce, and lime. Versions of this drink include tomato juice or Worcestershire furthering the relation to the ‘bloody mary’ even more. Bud Light even makes a "chelada" drink now!
Although the origins of this drink are largely unknown, one commonplace version of its etymology is found in the name itself – “Mi” (My) “Chela” (slang for beer) and “Ada” a shortened ‘helada’ meaning cold, and there you have “Mi-chela-ada’.
However, the more exciting story to tell is that of a turn of the century general in the Mexican Revolution by the name of Don Augusto Michel.
(Cue the strum of a guitar)...and cut to flashback.
He apparently had a fondness for beer with lime and hot sauce and the cantina he’d frequent with his soldiers memorialized the drink with his name, “Michel” and ‘chelada’, meaning “cold one”.
Either way, someone came up with it somewhere and it’s a very refreshing way to start your Sunday Fun Day.
Café de Olla
Cinnamon, raw dark sugar called Piloncillo, and ground coffee are the primary ingredients to this popular spiced coffee drink. Served in clay pots, this traditional warm beverage served soldiers during the Mexican Revolution around the turn of the century and is still seen at breakfast tables today.
White rice, water, cinnamon and sugar are all it takes to create this deliciously refreshing egg-nog like drink, popularized in Mexico in the 1500s.
The word horchata comes from Latin words for barley, which was the original ingredient in this beverage that has namely North African and Roman roots.
Much like several of the drinks found in Mexico today, horchata came to the Mesoamerican country by way of the Spaniards, who also enjoy a good cold glass in the summer months to this day.
It may come as a shock to casual wine drinkers, but Mexico boasts a fairly sprawling number of wineries within its borders. From Baja in the west to Aguascalientes and Queretaro in the central states, Mexico has been producing wine for centuries.
In the early 1500s, Spanish conquerors brought in snippings of their vines to Mexico. Descendants of Europeans who came to America in search of a new life in the early 1900s often brought ‘old vines’ smuggled in their suitcases. With these vine cuttings, entrepreneurs could blend new and old worlds and expand their outreach of wine production. The Spaniards were not much different in this approach 500 years ago.
In their own free enterprise, the Spaniards endeavored upon making wine in a climate that was seemingly not fit for the job. According to the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust), the ideal conditions for wine growing are all determined by the geography of the vineyard. Between the 30 and 50 degree line, called the 30th parallel near Mexico’s equatorial location, is the sweet spot.
Then factor in temperature – too cool or too warm and the crops produce under or over ripened grapes. Humidity levels, altitude and soil also factor in, ultimately lending Mexico to sit in a very ideal spot for production of wine. So much so, that the Spaniards eventually felt the threat of over-production due to the quality brandy and wine coming from Mexico and the government shut it all down.
Only priests were allowed to continue the production, and primarily for sacraments. Despite the governmental shut down, wine production in Mexico continued and has grown today to a whopping 120+ individual wineries in over eight wine regions.
Take a wine tasting tour:
Visitors can enjoy the same luxuries as a tasting tour through Napa, and get to enjoy the Mexican culture while doing it. Sign me up!
Although gin is not commonly thought of as a Mexican spirit, gin seekers around the world will want to discover the Katun brand of gin from the Yucatan. Near the “yellow city” of Izamal, cenotes pepper the map.
Cenotes are popular sinkholes for swimming characterized by crystal clear, cool waters and gimmicky snack shack surrounds. It is with the water in these cenotes that the Katun Gin blends, prior to filtering and bottling.
A corn based spirit, the Katun gin is crafted by a formal Mezcal producer. What makes Katun particularly unique to other gins is the botanicals used from the region.
Xcatic, as a traveler to the Yucatan will quickly learn, is a type of chili pepper used in nearly every recipe from dips to sauces, meat platters and yes, in Katun gin.
The unique pepper is paired with chilies, achiote, citrus and 17 botanicals in total, all sourced regionally with the exception of the juniper. Gin and Tonic drinkers will rejoice in tasting this refreshing Yucateco-infused spirit.
Aloe Vera Drink
Sunburns aren’t the only things soaking up the cooling syrup of the aloe plant. Although not exclusively Mexican, aloe vera comes in plastic bottles, ripe for drinking.
Typically seen as a ‘juice’ this green beverage can be found just about anywhere in Mexico. Aloe Vera juice has exceptional benefits in treating heartburn and constipation and is chock full of antioxidants and nutrients.
A refreshing summer cocktail blending tequila (or mezcal) and grapefruit soda, the Paloma has origins dating back to the baby boomer era.
Agua Fresca is no more than a flavored fruit drink, made from fruits, chia seeds, hibiscus flowers, you name it. It’s not quite a juice and not quite flavored water. Somewhere in between, this refreshing and colorful beverage can be found on road sides, in markets and on cocktail menus across Mexico.
Looking for some great itineraries and places to stay in Mexico? The Yucatan offers some seriously interesting locales for all types of traveler (not just the party crowd), and includes visits to Colonial cities, ancient ruins like Ek Balam and Coba and amazing restaurants. Mexico City is a haven for art, history and culture, and a taste of Europe in the Americas.
Get to exploring this amazing place with some of my first hand intel and sample some of these drinks like Pox or Pulque for yourself!