400 Types of Drunkenness: Pulque, the Mexican Moonshine

By Chantal Braganza

I’m not up on my Aztec mythology, but one thing I’ve always remembered are the Centzon Totochtin, 400 rabbits that liked to drink and party and each represented a particular type of intoxication. They were the gods of good times, and their mom, Mayahuel, provided the booze: a thick, milky sap called pulque that was once one of the more popular alcohols in Mexico.

If you tasted it now, this would be hard to believe. It has the consistency of saliva and looks a bit like translucent milk. It bubbles a bit sometimes. It’s made from agave, largely the same kind of plant you get mezcal from, only the sap is uncooked (tequila comes from a specific species only—blue agave). In Mesoamerican times, it was enjoyed only by priests, the pregnant, the elderly and sacrifice victims in need of a pick-me-up. When the Spanish came around and messed things up a bit, everyone started drinking the stuff.

Whenever my parents go back to Puerto Vallarta, I tell them to bring me back a bottle of high-roller tequila, or rompope, a kind of boozy egg nog that tastes like caramel. But never pulque: it’s not looked too kindly upon by most Mexicans these days and seen as cheap rural booze—a kind of moonshine. I used to think this was because it tastes like runny sourdough starter, but the Internet tells me a more interesting story that has more  to do with immigration and marketing.

In post-colonial times, pulque was big business. Families built multi-generational fortunes from producing and selling the stuff, and drinking establishments called pulquerias populated nearly every city centre (it’s estimated Mexico City held about 1,000 of these places in the early 1900s). You might have called it the nation’s equivalent of beer, its liquid pride, until actual beer brewers started moving in and setting up shop. Beer had its advantages: a longer shelf life, expert marketers, and its production wasn’t reliant on a plant that eventually started disappearing in certain regions of the country. It looked and tasted cleaner. Pulque, on the other hand, was rumoured to have a less-than-savoury production process that may or may not have involved socks filled with manure to kick-start fermentation. You sell beer on almost any type of dumb joke (see: Corona or Dos Equis commercials), but I doubt toilet humour qualifies.

Relatively few pulquerias exist today, though you can buy it in cans at specialty shops. Based on what I’ve learned, I might give it another chance the next time I go. Maybe.