Mention Mexican drinks and most people will conjure Margaritas and Palomas, tequila and mezcal. In fact, when the Mexican bar La Contenta opened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in 2015, pre-Columbian beverages like tepache (made from fermented pineapple peels), pulque (the fermented aguamiel, or sap, of certain maguey species) and tejuino (nixtamalized corn, piloncillo, lemon and salt) were still largely unheard of and seldom consumed stateside.
Over the past several years, however, renewed interest in the ancestral drinks of Mexico, along with expanded distribution of their ready-to-drink and distilled counterparts, has made it easier for the Mexican bar community to showcase the beverages that were once confined to homes, street vendors and dedicated establishments south of the border.
Part of the drinks’ relative obscurity in the U.S. is by design: Many of them have historically been seen as sacred, and some of the ingredients are unavailable outside of Mexico or require pasteurization for distribution, which changes their makeup. But, for Alex Valencia, co-founder of La Contenta—one of the U.S.’ first bars devoted to what he terms “Mexican mixology”—it was important to make a concerted effort to raise awareness around these ingredients. “It’s become my mission to function as an educator and bridge of connection for my community by making these drinks accessible,” he says. “Many younger Mexican Americans have never even heard of them.”
Valencia’s efforts have paved the way for other Mexican immigrants, including Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, a native of Guanajuato and co-owner of the recently opened Lower East Side bar Superbueno, to incorporate indigenous ingredients into cocktails.
“Despite being born and raised in Mexico, I’d never heard of tejuino until I met Alex,” says Jimenez, who worked at Ghost Donkey, New York’s late, formative mezcal and tequila bar in 2016. As lead bartender, he brought drinks like tepache and pinole (made with toasted masa, piloncillo and canela) to the program, and they have only grown in popularity since. “It’s really [only] in the last six to eight years that we’ve seen more of these drinks on bar menus. It’s due to the renaissance Mexican restaurants and alternative spirits have experienced in that time, which has helped to widen the perception of Mexican culture.”
At Superbueno, Jimenez offers a tightly curated food and beverage menu celebrating Mexican street food and pop culture. “There’s not just one way of describing Mexico,” he says, noting the country’s diverse and hyper-regional culture. “Superbueno is my way of honoring my journey here as well as creating awareness about our traditions and the way in which my culture is perceived.”
Superbueno’s signature drink is a batched, bottled, carbonated tepache that serves four. It’s a nod to one of the beverages of Jimenez’s youth, here made with fermented cucumber instead of the traditional pineapple or corn, along with tequila, shochu, yuzu, hoja santa and toasted chile de arbol. As his bar program evolves, Jimenez plans to add more ancient beverages to the menu.
The practice of bringing indigenous drinks beyond Mexico’s borders, however, is not without its detractors. Critics object to the commodification and appropriation of the country’s fermented beverages, whose inherent probiotic qualities make them attractive to a wellness crowd that might be ignorant of the drink’s ancestral history. In short, tepache is “not ‘the new kombucha,’” says Luna Vela, a consultant from Monterrey on pre-Columbian fermented foods and the former director of fermentation at Austin, Texas’ acclaimed Nixta Taqueria.
For those who want to introduce these ancient drinks into cocktails, bartenders say that producing them in-house is a must. “By making it ourselves, it helps our guests understand what precious, traditional drinks these are, but it also reduces our waste and showcases our ancestors’ ingenuity and resourcefulness,” says Blanca Benitez, general manager of Seattle’s Mezcaleria Oaxaca. There, the housemade tepache—a collaborative recipe from the Mexican bar team—is used in a variety of cocktails including the signature Margarita de Tepache, a subtly funky, mezcal-based take on the tequila classic, and the bar’s newest drink, a Oaxacan-inspired riff on tejate (toasted masa, cacao and mamey sapote pits, also known as pixtle), made with blanco mezcal, pulverized roasted blue corn, cacao beans and cacao flowers.
In Sarasota, Florida, Clio Padilla Flores, bar manager of the city’s Sage/Realm Restaurants, is looking beyond tepache by experimenting with different types of heirloom Mexican masa that she sources from online purveyor Masienda. “There’s so much potential there for deeper, more complex profiles,” she says. Her bestselling Masa Dulce is made with tejuino, mezcal, a guajillo-serrano tincture, and a scoop of tequila and lime sorbet. “I had to really fight to get it on the menu in 2015, but now it’s the most popular drink,” she says.
Introducing pulque to an American bar setting is more challenging. Pulque is perhaps the most revered of pre-Columbian beverages because the Aztecs considered maguey to be the personification of Mayahuel, goddess of fertility. And while bartenders in Mexico use pulque and curados (pulque combined with fruit or other botanicals) in cocktails, the authentic ingredient is impossible to source outside of its homeland since it is unpasteurized and considered best in the first few days after its creation, when the unfiltered liquid is slightly sweet with herbaceous, yeasty flavors.
Though attempts have been made, manufacturing pulque as an RTD beverage dramatically alters its identity. “Pulque cannot travel,” says Fabiola Padilla, owner of San Miguel de Allende bar Bekeb, who sources aguamiel from her uncle’s nearby ranch and ferments it in-house. “The beauty of these drinks is that they’re made in a traditional way from local plants using natural fermentation and no additives. It’s not just about the end result, but the process and origin.”
However, for U.S.-based bartenders, the availability of distilled pulque, a higher-proof alternative to the ready-to-drink options, presents an intriguing new spirit as well as a platform with which to educate guests about its fermented predecessor. When La Contenta opened, the only form of pulque available to Valencia was an inferior canned product. Still, his Pulque de Guayaba (rum, guava purée, pulque, lemon and vanilla essence) was an instant hit and has been on the menu ever since. But when Tlaxcala’s Juerte Destilado de Pulque became available in late 2021, Valencia swapped it in, praising the spirit’s lychee notes, grassy nose and lighter mouthfeel.
Serving pulque—and a distilled version at that—has been more fraught for Vela, who resides in Texas, on land that once belonged to Mexico. She recounts a recent debate with a Mexican adobe activist in West Texas: “He asked me, ‘What would a tlachiquero [a maguey tapper who harvests aguamiel] think of such a thing?’ And I think about that and agree that we need to continue to ask these kinds of questions of the producers we work with,” she says. “But I also feel it’s important for me to provide access to these ancestral beverages, even if it’s a different expression.”
While Vela admits she experiences internal conflict regarding the consumption of pre-Columbian drinks outside of their homeland, she believes their increasing visibility serves the greater good. “My goal is to represent and honor Mexican indigenous traditions and heritage with my drinks,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of Mexicans from older generations contact me to say they remember them from their childhood, and tasting them has provided a connection to their ancestors and homeland.”
Padilla Flores echoes these sentiments, and she also embraces the opportunity to showcase what is still an underrepresented side of Mexico’s drink culture. “Using ancestral beverages opens the door to create new and exciting cocktails,” she says. The way she sees it, when it comes to Mexican ingredients, “everything old is new again.”