The Drinks of Día de los Muertos
Three thousand years ago, Aztecs celebrated the holiday for a month, but today most families welcome the return of spirits to the land of the living on November 1 and 2.
Mexicans have been celebrating Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, for thousands of years. The tradition dates back to the Aztecs, though elements of other religions have been incorporated over the centuries, particularly following Spain’s conquest of Mexico and integration of Catholicism into indigenous life. Three thousand years ago, Aztecs celebrated the holiday for a month, but today most of the festivities fall on November 1 and 2, when families construct ofrendas (offerings) for deceased relatives, and welcome the return of spirits to the land of the living.
Altar components vary regionally across Mexico, reflecting the variety of culinary and broader cultural traditions in the country. “You’ll see different types of food and alcohol being served in different regions,” says Mexico City-based bartender Juan Fernandez. “It’s based around what the dead liked to consume while they were living. Particularly in rural areas, you’ll find popular locally produced wines and liquors on many altars.”
In central Mexico, pulque appears on some altars. It’s a fermented, viscous beverage made from the fresh sap of certain varieties of maguey. (Different species of maguey also form the basis for mezcal and tequila, but they are distilled, not fermented.) The drink has ancients roots: Aztecs used pulque thousands of years ago to ease the passing of sacrificial victims and as a ritual intoxicant for priests.
Traditionally, pulque is poured into individual glasses from a large barrel on ice. Sometimes fruit and nuts are added, called pulque curado. The drink has a low ABV, somewhere between two and eight percent depending on the length of fermentation, and has a reputation for producing a strangely clear-headed intoxication when overly imbibed (similar to other agave-based spirits).
Some northern Mexicans, particularly in Chihuahua, drink sotol, and it appears on Día de los Muertos altars across the area. Mexicans began producing the drink, made from fermented (and then distilled) evergreen shrub growing along Chihuahua’s hillsides around 800 years ago. The plant's heart, similar to agave, is cooked as part of production. Commercial sotol producers use plants that grow wild and take as long as fifteen years to mature.
“Sotol has similarities to tequila and mezcal...there is smokiness but also an element of herbs,” says Fernandez. “The flavors vary depending on where it’s produced. Desert varieties will have an earthier, grassy flavor, whereas plants growing closer to wooded areas produce a pinier, more herbaceous spirit.”
In southern Mexico’s Chiapas region, pox appears on some altars, a spirit with origins in Mayan religious ceremonies. Pox is traditionally used holistically — the word translates to medicine in Tzotzil, and is fermented with a maize base and then distilled in a manner similar to rum production (sometimes sugarcane and wheat are added). Pox has only recently become available outside of rural mountainous communities in Chiapas. The state granted certification of the spirit in 2012, allowing distillers to sell it throughout Mexico.
Dasylirion, the genus of desert spoon plant used to make sotol, grows wild in desert regions, requiring up to 20 years to mature, and there are 16 different species and 5 varietals used to make sotol.
“People say it tastes like a smoked corn tortilla,” says Fernandez. “There’s some sweetness, but this spirit is also strong. Some varieties can reach 70 percent ABV.” Bartenders are increasingly turning to pox as a cocktail ingredient; it’s also often served neat, with orange slices dusted in cinnamon or black coffee, in a manner similar to mezcal.
Día de los Muertos ofrendas are meant to fortify and sustain spirits returning after a long journey from the other side. Visiting loved ones want to be surrounded with comfort and familiarity, and their favorite foods and drinks provide that. Regional wines and spirits tell stories of culinary and religious celebrations in Mexico dating back millennia. “It’s about maintaining a sense of closeness with the dead,” says Fernandez. “Sharing food and drink has always been a way to do that, across cultures and periods of time.
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