The Younger Generation Reclaims its Drinking History
Made from the fermented sap of agave—the same ingredient that tequila and mezcal are distilled from—pulque (said POOL-kay) dates back to when the Aztecs and their gods ruled the roost. Consequently, the milky white substance is known in Mexico as the drink of the gods.
In pulque’s heyday, there were over a 1,000 pulquerias in Mexico City alone. Especially in the late 19th and early 20th century, what once was considered a beverage consumed by the elite, became mainstream with working class men. Pulquerias—bars that only serve pulque—propagated throughout the city. (FYI, women weren’t allowed in pulque bars until the 70s.)
When the 21st century rolled around, the number had shrunk to an anemic dozen or so. So, why did the drink of the gods fall out of fashion?
“In the ‘50s, beer companies started a rumor that pulque was made with cow caca,”
said Anilu Lopez Beltran, my tour guide in Mexico City.
Beer brands, such as Dos Equis and Corona, were thirsty for the country’s vast market share of fermented agave fans. Blessed by the Mexican government, they launched a stinky smear campaign—pooh-poohing pulque as low-class—until the ‘90s. Sure enough, those repulsed, empty-handed imbibers had to drink something. Consequently, they switched to cerveza and tequila.
Poop propaganda notwithstanding, pulque is fighting its way back. Due to the chido kids’ (hipsters) interest, dozens of new bars dedicated to the age-old elixir and old-timer joints—like Las Duelistas that opened in 1930—are jammed packed. Arturo Gallardo, Las Duelistas’ owner, says business has never been better, selling upwards of 900 liters on the weekend.
“We come here almost everyday after school to hang out with friends. On weekends, it’s our first stop before we hit the clubs,”
says a Rockabilly-outfitted college student holding a terracotta-clay cup of thick, red-colored pulque.
Due to its low alcohol content (3 to 5 percent) and tasty flavors—like tamarind, pistachio, coffee and mango—it’s easy to gulp down a lot. Although not impossible to wind up with a hangover, feeling bloated, rather than buzzed, is more probable. Plus, it’s like a Jamba Juice boost, full of protein, probiotics and amino acids.
Beyond the student-friendly prices ($1.65 per glass), the Instagram-generation’s intrigue is rooted in something deeper.
“Young people want to connect with the old ways and their Mexican heritage. Pulquerias are a part of that movement,”
says Margarita Carrillo Arronte, one of the country’s most revered chefs and authorities on authentic Mexican cuisine.
Unlike film photography, LP records, and vintage Levis—relics of the past that have made a comeback with millennials globally—this phenomenon is purely Mexicana. Since spoilage occurs within days of fermentation, it might be one of the world’s only globalization-safe products.
As the only country on the planet to try it, here’s where to get your ancient Aztec nectar on when in Mexico City:
Las Duelistas – Painted floor-to-ceiling with colorful, pre-Hispanic murals, it’s one of the city’s most popular pulque bars. Check out their exotic flavors, like mint, red wine, and Oreo cookie.
Aranda 28, Centro Histórico
La Purisima – Although not a traditional pulqueria by definition (they sell beer and liquor as well), it’s Mexico City’s first gay nightclub to serve pulque.
República de Cuba 17, Centro
La Titina – Owned by Celia Muñoz, an elderly woman who holds her own when it comes to drinking, this 70-year-old pulqueria was the first to welcome women several decades ago.
Misterios Avenue, Eje 3 Norte sn, Industrial, Gustavo A. Madero
Wichitos – Located in the posh La Condesa neighborhood, Wichitos caters to well-heeled Mexicans. Check out their spice-rimmed pulque shots that come in a rainbow of colors.
Tamaulipas 104, Condesa D.F.
La Gloria – Avatar, a blue-colored pulque made from a secret recipe, is the specialty at this 109-year-old cantina.
Morelos 34, Barrio San Pablo, Iztapalapa
Pulque 101: 8 Things to Know Before You Go
- Pulque comes in three sizes: tarro (glass); maceta (mug); or cabeta (pitcher).
- Natural pulque (or unflavored) tastes somewhat pungent and sour—something like plain yogurt.
- If it has the consistency of semen or smells rotten, don’t drink it.
- Pulquerias will usually feature 5-10 curados (flavored) that change daily. Curados are more expensive than plain pulque.
- The most popular curado flavors include: apio (celery); piña (peanut); nuez (walnut), jitomate (tomato); guayaba (mango); and avena (oatmeal).
- Most pulquerias sell light snacks as well, such as posole (hominy soup) and tacos.
- The nearby states of Hildago and Tlaxcala provide nearly all the pulque served in Mexico City’s bars. There’s even an official Pulque Route in Tlaxcala where you can visit pulque haciendas.
- Want a nonalcoholic alternative? Try aguamiel, a syrupy drink made from the sap of agave that also dates back to the pre-Hispanic times.