Courtesy of Junior Merino
In honor of Cinco de Mayo, NBC Latino is devoting an entire week to celebrating the food of Puebla. They asked several Mexican-born and Mexican-American chefs to share their personal stories and memories of Puebla, along with a favorite recipe from the region, one of Mexico’s most important culinary hubs.
Here, renowned mixologist Junior Merino writes about Mexico’s oldest spirit, pulque.
Growing up on a large ranch in Puebla, an abundance of fresh, local food was always within reach. Whether it be corn, homemade cheeses, tomatoes or chiles, our life revolved around the crops, the changing seasons and festive family celebrations. And for every baptism, wedding and joyous gathering, my father would make a special batch of milky, sweet pulque. Rather than bottled tequila or distilled mezcal, pulque, the most ancient of Mexico’s spirits, was what we used to toast in our home.
Pulque (prounounced pul-kay) is made from the fermented sap of the maguey, or agave, plant. Unlike tequila or mezcal, which is made from cooked sap to produce a strong spirit, pulque is made by a much simpler process by virtue of the lucky accident through which it was discovered. The birth of pulque isn’t well documented, but legend has it that over 2,000 years ago, some agave juice happened to have been left out in a bowl. When the liquid was found days later — foamy, milky-colored and with a relatively low alcohol content of about five percent — the indigenous Mesoamerican people at once deemed it sacred.
Pulque is very simple to make, like the wine my Italian ancestors surely made before settling in Mexico during a wave of Italian migration to the Americas in the 1800s. You cut the flower off a mature agave plant, scraping away at the heart of the plant and collecting the juice that drips from it. One agave plant can yield up to four liters of the juice we call the agua miel (honey water), and once left in a wooden barrel or bucket, it will begin to ferment naturally thanks to its high sugar content. In my early childhood the drink was considered the poor man’s alternative to more costly beers thanks to its similar alcohol content and foamy cap. I remember when I was first given a sip by my father when I was 6 years old; it tasted oddly slippery.
I never once thought that when I said good bye to my family in Mexico at 15 years old, that it would be the last I would see of pulque for almost a dozen years. Just like my large, extended family was absent from my early years in New York City, so was pulque. It wasn’t until 2005, when the Mexican government asked me to make a pulque cocktail, that I revisited my memories of beverage. It’s more readily available than ever before, thanks to new artisanal pulquerias that have been quietly replacing the thousands that once existed in 20th century Mexico City. Over the past year, the trend has swiftly made its way north to the United States, where you can purchase pulque by the can (look for the brand Nectar Del Razo Pulque at small Mexican grocery stores) or even order the beverage online thanks to Mexican pulque producers like Pulque Hacienda 1881.
These new pulques are smoother, more balanced than the rustic version my father made, and by adding aloe vera and lemon grass syrup to my cocktail, the viscosity and vegetal flavor of the pulque comes through beautifully. I call my drink The Mercenario, and it’s perfectly balanced: a touch of sour and sweet, plus a hint of bitter. Drinking it for Cinco de Mayo makes this celebratory holiday a special occasion — just like the ones I remember back in Puebla.
- 1 Tejocote (a wild mexican apple easily found in Mexican stores)
- 2 bar spoons of nixtamal (the acidulated corn used to make tortillas)
- 2 oz pulque
- 1 oz mezcal blanco
- 1/4 oz Dainzu Aloe Vera & Lemongrass Syrup
- 1/2 oz lemon juice
- 1/2 oz St. Germain
Muddle the tejocote, nixtamal, and syrup in a mixing glass. Add the rest of the ingredients, ice, and shake. Double strain into a tall glass full of ice and rim with salt.
For more on Latino food and recipes, head to NBC Latino.
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