It's not clear as to when the first sip of pulque was ever taken but one thing is for sure, it was a very, very long time ago. The Aztecs thoroughly enjoyed consuming this "drink of the gods" and there is even evidence that it may predate them by a few hundred years. It is however certain and to the surprise of many people that pulque was the national drink of Mexico, long before tequila ever moved into the spotlight.
In general, the gods of pulque had a close affiliation with those of the rain and water, thus there was a strong connection to agriculture, but it is said that the goddess Mayahuel originally discovered this fermented elixir. She is depicted throughout history as having many breasts to feed her 400 rabbit children, the Centzon Totochin, who represent all the different incarnations of drunkenness, from the tipsy jovial person to the incredibly intoxicated.
Of the 400 rabbit children Ometotchtli, Two Rabbit, is regarded as the supreme god of pulque and strangely the first child is never mentioned. Ruins still remain standing in Cuernavaca in honor of another notable Centzon Totochtin, called Tepoztecatl. This regional deity gave his name to the town of Tepoztlan and when the full moon shines brightly in the sky, it is said that devotees still trek from miles around to the temple to worship Tepoztecatl and pulque.
Pulque comes from the massive maguey cactus and it is extracted by scraping the base, which in turn stimulates the flow of this milky substance. From each plant you can extract up to a gallon of liquid which is then fermented in a similar fashion to beer. After this process you end up with a slightly sour tasting concoction with what can only be described as a very gooey consistency and, for the uninitiated, can take a little getting used to.
People say that you can tell how good a batch of pulque is by throwing a glass full on the floor and if the consistency is right it should ''splash'' into the shape of a scorpion. With regards to the strength you'll find it lies somewhere between a beer and a wine, very different (if brewed properly) to the ''kick'' you get from a tequila or mescal. Although drink too much of it and just like its more potent cousins, you'll know about it in the morning.
Pulque is not often found in regular bars or restaurants in Mexico, in fact, unfortunately these days it has a kind of stigma attached to it and is considered a drink of the lower classes. So in order to really discover pulque you'll have to visit one of the pulquerias, which are usually small places dedicated to vending this unique beverage. Quite often even the tiniest towns will still have their very own pulqueria.
The pulqueria is a truly unique phenomenon in itself and should you get to visit one, it will be an interesting experience for sure. They are usually pretty basic establishments, oftentimes consisting of no more than a rough attempt at a bar surrounded by a few old wooden tables and chairs, but dare to step inside and you'll experience the real unadulterated atmosphere of small town Mexico.
These days some of the more progressive pulquerias, mainly in the larger towns, allow women to enter and also serve pulque flavored with ground up fruit, such as mangoes, bananas or strawberries, which helps soften the tart taste of the drink's unique flavor. However, in the small town pulquerias it remains ''men only'', pulque only comes in one flavor and the chances are you'll be drinking it out of a crude clay mug or even a plastic bottle!
With the advent of refrigeration and the rising popularity of beer and tequila the demand for pulque waned and has been declining ever since, despite the various attempts made to ''revamp'' its image. The majority of the ranches that used to be dedicated to its production had to change tack and look for other ways to earn money, with many turning to raising bulls and other livestock. These days the land in states such as Tlaxcala, in the centre of Mexico, are still covered with thousands of Maguey, a constant reminder to the older generation of a time and wealth long since gone.
So next time you visit this fascinating country why not try a taste of Mexico's first national drink and discover the unique taste of pulque, the drink of Aztec gods...Salud!
Pulque: Drink of the Aztec Gods
- Matthew Kirk