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Culture: Cocktails, Mezcal and Pulque: 5 Glasses in Mexico City

Culture: Cocktails, Mezcal and Pulque: 5 Glasses in Mexico City

It’s a good day to drink in Mexico City. On the influential 50 Best Bars list’s North American edition for 2023, CDMX held an impressive eight spots, far beating out every other destination except New York City. On the list’s global rendition, Mexico’s capital city snagged four coveted positions, ranking ahead of every locale except the Big Apple and London.

This may not come as a shock given Mexico City’s status as a culinary capital. But consider that just ten years ago, a martini remained a foreign concept here. (Ordering one might result in a frightful glass of straight Martini & Rossi vermouth.) Now, however, inventive places are seemingly around every corner. There’s Handshake Speakeasy, Hanky Panky, Xaman, Yellow Bird, Kaito, Baltra Bar, Café de Nadie, Brujas, Fifty Mils and the pioneering Licorería Limantour, all of which have raised mixology standards not only in Mexico City but across the country. Today, cocktails are just as part of the city’s boozy fabric as micheladas and mezcal.

As a result, there’s much to explore. When bar-hopping, look for Mexican gins, rums and corn whiskies. Order margaritas at your own risk, as they’re not particularly popular and are usually cloyingly sweet. Be sure to taste Mexican wine (try the retail shop La Contra), Mexican craft beer (swing by the taproom at Fiebre de Malta), and even hidromiel, aka mead (Colonia Meadery is a great spot).

Of course, it can take weeks to months to fully drink your way through the city. But if you’ve only got a short while to explore—a weekend, perhaps—these five iconic drinks are a great way to understand the city’s vibrant drinking culture.

Image Courtesy of La Clandestina

There’s no shortage of good mezcal in the U.S. In fact, its global popularity is causing shortages in Mexico, but that’s another story. Indeed, visitors from cities with great mezcal bars and liquor stores may feel as if they have a wider selection of mezcals at home. That’s why mezcalerías like La Clandestina—one of the first of its kind and still among the best—are so crucial to understanding mezcal on its home turf.

Here, the 25-plus mezcals aren’t sold in branded bottles, but sourced directly from the producers, which mostly hail from Oaxaca but several other states as well. They’re sold by the ounce or jarrita, a type of small pitcher, from giant water jugs that dispense mezcal on tap through snake-like tubes, creating the illusion of a boozy Wonka factory. Order a few to appreciate the wide variability among mezcals, and take advantage of the knowledgeable staff by asking questions about this ancestral spirit that, like wine, sits at the intersection of culture, environment, politics and socioeconomics.

Coyota Pulque
Image Courtesy of Coyota

Pulque is the spontaneously fermented sap of certain giant agaves (as opposed to mezcal, which is made from cooked agave hearts). It’s a cloudy, viscous drink that tastes like a cross between sweetened kefir and hefeweizen, with the strength of a weak beer, though it increases in alcohol as the days pass. Until the early 20th century when it was supplanted by beer conglomerates, pulque was by far the most consumed alcoholic beverage in Mexico City. At its peak in the late 1800s, most urban blocks in Mexico City had at least one pulquería that exclusively served this sacred pre-Hispanic drink. 

Pulque is in constant fermentation and that “living” quality is vital to both its nutrition and flavor; efforts to can it haven’t been very successful. As a result, while there are still a handful of pulquerías in the city (try Las Duelistas, La Risa and La Pirata), it should be consumed as close to harvest time as possible, so it’s hard to find quality pulque in restaurants. Not the case at the petite café Coyota. The spot, which celebrates regional and indigenous food and drink, is powered by minds that are as much culinary investigators as chefs. The team’s pulque comes in weekly from the nearby Hidalgo or México states, and you can enjoy it among other traditional drinks like tepache and tejuino as well as terrific food.

Cuba Campechana at La Ópera

Mexican cantina culture would take several books to adequately explain, but suffice to say that these havens of drink and food (which range in vibe from dive bar to luxury restaurant) are key to understanding the city’s social history and present. The drink? A Cuba (it’s not “Cuba Libre” here), made with rum (usually white Bacardi rum), Coke (never Pepsi) and—like everything in Mexico—a squeeze of lime. But to really fit in, get a Cuba Campechana. In Mexico City, “campechana” means, among other things, half-and-half or mixed; the Cuba Campechana is rum with half Coke and half soda water, usually presented in bottles that invite drinkers to fix the concoction themselves. Still too sweet for you? Try a Cuba Pintada, a rum and soda “painted” with just a splash of Coke. 

Bar La Ópera is an ornate Art Nouveau-style cantina dating to 1876. It’s not lacking for atmosphere: The ceiling bears a hole from a bullet discharged in 1914 by revolutionary general Pancho Villa for reasons still up for debate. For a more low-key Cuba Campechana, head to nearby La Faena, a cantina that doubles as a de facto bullfighting museum.

Ocelóyotl (Carajillo) at Tlecán

Tlecan Oceloyotl
image courtesy of Tlecán

Tlecán is one of the city’s best mezcal bars, whose list of direct-from-producer mezcals has wine-like tasting notes for each offering. Look for profoundly Mexican references like cedrón (lemon verbena), cajeta (goat-milk caramel), green mango and ocote tree resin. Unlike most traditional mezcalerías, though, Tlecán embraces using mezcal in cocktails as well as savoring them straight.

Few leisurely lunches in Mexico City end without the server offering a carajillo, a kind of combination coffee-booze-dessert that blends espresso with the Spanish herbal liqueur Licor 43. Tlecán’s version is called the Ocelóyotl, which translates roughly to “brave warrior” from the Náhuatl language. It’s perhaps the city’s most Mexican—and least sweet—version, combining coffee from the state of Veracruz with spice-infused mezcal, corn liqueur, a syrup made from the raw sugar called piloncillo and cacao bitters. It’s the perfect post-lunch or pre-dinner cocktail. 

Soldado Medina at Rayo
Image Courtesy of Rayo

Emblematic of the new wave of Mexico City bars on the cutting edge of the global cocktail scene that, at the same time, celebrate local ingredients and techniques, Rayo takes a uniquely gastronomic approach to many of their cocktails. Look for cocktails that feature not only local fruits, but chiles, herbs and even veggies like roasted sweet potato, plus liquid nods to things like mole sauces, esquites (street corn) and pork rinds.

The Soldado Medina, whose name references a legendary Robin Hood-like character, mixes tequila with poblano chile liqueur, the Yucatecan honey-anise liqueur called xtabentún and housemade cactus-paddle sorbet. It’s a remarkably complex and almost savory drink, reminiscent of the green juices served by the city’s ubiquitous juice stands, which—after drinking through this list—you’ll certainly be craving the morning after.

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