Pulque, once considered a sacred drink reserved for the Aztec upper classes, is a bold, new player on the Mexico City drinks scene, but this time it’s definitely for the masses.
Made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, it is tequila’s drunken uncle—a bit sloppy and unrefined, and plagued with spontaneous fits of numbness and hallucination.
We went to a neighborhood pulque bar, Los Insurgentes, with a few friends last weekend, so Grover could sample this ancient drink for the first time.
“I should really eat something before we go – I do not want a pulque hangover in the morning,” he said as we were leaving.
“Oh, don’t worry. You will not get drunk on pulque,” I said. “You’ll take two sips and switch to beer.”
He looked at me doubtfully, grabbed a handful of chips, and we were on our way.
Los Insurgentes doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s an old building on a busy thoroughfare in the Roma Norte neighborhood. But once we entered, we realized the place was a cavernous old home, with multiple rooms shooting off the central bar, all of them packed with people.
Searching for our friends, we climbed to the second floor, scoured through four crammed rooms, and finally landed on the third floor, where there was another bar and a DJ spinning music in front of a flickering wall of video. There were our friends, all of them bravely holding clay mugs of pulque, unlike the majority of patrons, who were drinking beer.
Most people drink flavored pulque because natural pulque can be a bit too much to take—it has a rather foul odor and taste. If you’ve ever had fermented soybeans in a Japanese restaurant, you know what I’m talking about.
The flavors on tap for the night were tamarind, oat, and strawberry. I suggested the sweet tamarind flavor to Grover, and we got a mug to share. (Later I tried a friend’s oat pulque, and it was even better.)
Grover stood looking at the viscous, brown drink with hesitation and then took a sip.
“Hey, it’s not too bad!” he said, with surprise.
“Here – try my natural,” our friend John said.
“Figures John is drinking natural – he’s such a hardcore,” Grover said. Then he took a sip and his face showed it all.
“Man, that is nasty!”
I tried it and agreed.
Suddenly, even our tamarind was undrinkable. We switched to beer.
While the idea of pulque may have brought people to Los Insurgentes, it was the beer, music and crowd that kept them there. Sure, it’s fun to try pulque, to like or not like it, and perhaps have you legs turn to noodles after a few mugs, but for most it’s a novelty drink.
Of course, I was in an old pulqueria long ago where I saw the other type of pulque drinkers—the true hardcores. They drank cup after cup, then belligerent and desperate they begged for a liter to take home at closing time. Two men didn’t make it home, but instead passed out under their tables in a slick of slimy white pulque.
Tequila may have the “one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor” reputation, but I think we know which drink that rightfully belongs to.