Meet Tequila's Ancient Ancestor, Pulque
The alcoholic beverage is native to Mexico, but there are a few significant differences between pulque and other distilled agave spirits like tequila.
If you mention pulque in a room full of well-traveled drinkers, you’ll probably receive some mixed responses.
Pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave sap, is a drink native to Mexico that “tastes like sourdough starter,” said Quinn Mears, bar manager at Encore Saloon in Honolulu. “It tastes like uncooked sourdough bread with some funk. It has low carbonation, and [tends] to be really low in ABV. It’s definitely a unique flavor.”
However, how it’s served varies from place to place, both in terms of flavors and drinking vessels. “Traditional pulquerías serve it in glasses, mugs, and buckets that groups serve themselves from at their tables,” said Clayton Szczech, specialist in Mexican spirits, and founder of Experience Tequila/Experience Mezcal. “Curados are more popular however, and have been around for a long time. They are pulque flavored naturally with fruit, vegetables, or nuts. Some of them are sweetened with condensed milk.”
These combinations of flavors make it sound like a hipster tipple, but pulque has been drunk for millennia. In fact, the first known recorded mention of pulque, a mural called the “Mural of the Drinkers,” dates back to 1,000 A.D. For much of this time, it has been consumed as part of sacred rituals by indigenous peoples, said Szczech. “True pulque is a living beverage, on a constant constant journey between aguamiel (the sweet, raw agave sap consumed on its own for enjoyment and nutritional value), through different phases of pulque, eventually to something so acidic it’s undrinkable.”
The history of pulque as a beverage also places it as an ancestor to tequila. For many years, it was believed that the Spanish brought distillation technology with them to the New World (along with smallpox and slavery), but newer evidence suggests that clay pot distillation had existed within Mexico before the Spaniards’ arrival.
There are a few significant differences between pulque and other distilled agave spirits like tequila. Unlike mezcal and tequila, the agave used to make pulque isn’t cooked, said Szczech. Instead, a mature plant is cut open, and the raw sap is allowed to ferment naturally. This means that bacteria is largely responsible for the alcohol content, instead of yeast, the preferred method for most tequila makers.
Further, it’s also not usually made from Weber blue agave, the only varietal of agave that can be used to make tequila. As well, pulque is typically served while the fermentation process is still ongoing. In tequila production, the process typically continues until the fermented agave reaches around seven percent ABV, which is quite high for a pulque.
But the most interesting part about pulque is its elusive nature. Almost none is exported to the US due to the necessity of pasteurizing it before import. “The purist in me thinks the romance is taken out if you pasteurize and can the stuff for export,” said Szczech. “To be fair, the one canned pulque product I’ve had in the US was really not bad and tasted pretty close to the real thing. Even so, for many of us, the culture of the pulquería is at least as important as the flavor and effect of the pulque itself. And that you cannot export.”
Mears agrees. “You can’t really get it outside of Mexico,” he said. “It sticks out and it rocks out.”
How To Drink Pulque
If you’re in Mexico and want to try pulque, approach with caution and go with someone familiar with the drink, said Szczech. “In general, I have found the quality to have declined, and a lot of what is served is adulterated or just plain past its point of consumption. In my experience, if someone experiences bad pulque their first time, there won’t be a second.”