I am constantly amazed and delighted to find out about new food and drink from Mexico that I have never tried and never heard of. Mexico is so diverse in landscape and culture and its cuisine reflects this diversity. So from the hot dry deserts of the north to the cold cloudy Chiapan highlands of the south, and everything in between, come a great variety of flavours to delight and disgust.
The different cuisine is often also steeped in history and folklore that can date back to before the arrival of the Spanish but survive to this day. A recent discussion with someone who had recently returned from Chiapas telling stories of the beliefs surrounding the local tipple, inspired this blog about four relatively unknown alcoholic drinks from diverse parts of this enchanting country.
POX (pronounced posh)
Area of Origin: Chiapas
Plant Origin: Sugar Cane
Production Method: Fermented using a maize base and then distilled in much the same way as rum.
Folklore and myths: The word Pox comes from the Mayan language Tzotzil and means medicine, which gives you some idea of how it is regarded and used. Like many alcohols from pre-hispanic times it has a ritual use and is utilized for its purification properties. I was also told that some locals suggest that if a man drinks enough, he will become irresistible to women. Perhaps in his dreams when he has passed out drunk?
Distribution: Pox whilst still relatively unknown is starting to become trendy and it would appear that there is even such a thing as a Posheria (a bar selling different flavours and types of pox), and there are a number of images to be found through internet searches of bottles of pox with artisanal labels, hinting at an upcoming popularity surge.
RAICILLA (pronounced Rai- see-ya)
Area of Origin: Jalisco, Sierra Madres
Plant Origin: Agave roots
Production Method: Much the same as tequila and mezcal. A very quick and crude version of the process is that the mashed agave is fermented and then cooked very slowly to produce a steam, which condenses to form a liquid, which is the Raicilla.
Folklore and Myths: Raicilla rather sadly for men is said to cause temporary impotence and aphrodisiacal responses in women. It is said to be the type of alcohol that you can carry on drinking and talking so long as you are sat down, however, try to stand up and you fall right over. It is, however, also seen to have medicinal properties, fighting cold and flu symptoms.
Much like Mezcal, it is surrounded by the myth of pyschedelic properties produced by the mescaline in a San Pedro cactus. However, mescaline crystalises rather than turning to vapor and therefore cannot be found in the end product.
Distribution: Raicilla is a drink that is very commonly produced as moonshine, and can be bought in plastic bottles from sellers at the side of the road. It is clearly rather a clandestine procedure perhaps making it all the more fun!
BALCHE (pronounced bal-chay)
Area of Origin: Yucatan
Plant Origin: Bark of the Lonchocarpus Violaceus tree
Production Method: The bark is soaked in water and honey and fermented. This process is often undertaken in a canoe or a trough hollowed from a tree.
Folklore and myths: Since the balché tree is sacred for the Mayan it is not then surprising that the drink is steeped in folklore and significance. So important was it to the Maya that the Spanish attempted to outlaw it, but were persuaded to remove the ban after discovering its great many health benefits. The drink plays an important role in rituals as a purifier but also as a means to achieve higher states of consciousness and access to sacred worlds
Distribution: The production of Balché is very rare and therefore not something that can be bought or consumed easily. However its so called sister drink xtabentún a type of honey wine believed to form the base for Balché is widely available and has its own set of beliefs surrounding it, including its use for gynecological complaints.
Area of Origin: Northern Mexico, especially Chihuahua since it grows on rocky slopes
Plant origin: Evergreen shrub commonly known in English as the Dessert Spoon.
Production Method: Over 800 years ago the drink was made into a beer like drink by fermenting the plant juice. Upon the arrival of the Spanish, came European distillation methods and since then Sotol is produced as a spirit, in much the same way as Mezcal or Tequila. One plant can produce just one bottle of Sotol.
Myths and Folklore: Sotol that has been aged with a rattlesnake in the bottle is considered to be a cure for absolutely everything. It is said that Pancho Villa and his comrades drank it not only as an intoxicant but also as a tonic to ward off illnesses. According to Chilango magazine, Sotol and Peyote were cured with lemon and cinnamon and used in a number of rituals aimed at increasing feeling and consciousness.
Distribution: There was a time when Sotol nearly became “distinct”, however now there are various brands and varieties. Since its production is close to the US border it is now relatively easy to find in shops in the United States too.
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Independent UK, Afar and The New Worlder among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.