Mexico’s Best Kept Secret

Traditional fermented beverages from south of the border are gaining attention.

Traditional Mexican drinks like tepache and pulque have found a new home in modern mixology. The Tepache Fizz at Broken Spanish in Los Angeles uses house-made tepache soda for spice and complexity.
Traditional Mexican drinks like tepache and pulque have found a new home in modern mixology. The Tepache Fizz at Broken Spanish in Los Angeles uses house-made tepache soda for spice and complexity.

Though they’re not widely known, fermented Mexican drinks like pulque and tepache are making inroads in the United States, especially in Latino-heavy markets like Los Angeles and San Antonio. While they haven’t found widespread placement, a handful of savvy bartenders throughout the country are experimenting with these drinks and broadening their consumer base.

Pulque and tepache—fermented from agave sap and pineapple rind, respectively—are popping up on menus in the Southwest and in major cities with large Hispanic populations. These drinks are low in alcohol and have a rich history in Mexico. Pulque can be traced back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was considered a sacred drink. Historically, consumption peaked in the late 19th century and then declined with the rise of Mexican beers in the 20th century. However, some pulquerías still exist today throughout Mexico.

“These beverages have been a part of Mexican culture for a long time,” says Mike Lay, the beverage director at Broken Spanish in Los Angeles. “They’re still very new to many American consumers, but creative bartenders are incorporating these drinks into their repertoires. It’s our duty to educate people when appropriate.”

Broken Spanish makes its own tepache in-house and pours the concoction on draft for use in mixed drinks. The popular Tepache Fizz ($14) comprises Chinaco Blanco Tequila, Bols genever, Lustau East India Solera Sherry, house-made tepache soda, lemon juice and cinnamon. “The tepache adds depth, spice and a bit of effervescence to the cocktail,” Lay explains. He notes that tepache and pulque are alive and well in East Los Angeles, though they’re often hard to find on-premise, which is why his venue offers tepache on tap.

The esoteric nature of these drinks has contributed to their rise. In New York City, the Mexican bar and restaurant Pulqueria is a hidden gem. Located in a subterranean space in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, Pulqueria offers house-made pulque prepared with agave nectar and lime and enhanced with fruit like baby coconut, guava and mango. It’s available by itself ($8 a glass; $50 a pitcher) and mixed into cocktails ($14). The Cinema Paradiso comprises Milagro Silver Tequila, pulque, watermelon juice, lime juice and agave syrup, while the Acapulco Gold blends Patrón Silver Tequila, pulque, mango juice, lime juice and agave.

In Tucson, Arizona, the upscale Mexico City–inspired restaurant Penca offers tepache on draft ($6 for 12 ounces; $7 for 16 ounces; $10 for 24 ounces) and suggests mixing it with Bourbon and vermouth. Craft brewers are also experimenting with modern takes on the drink. A handful of purveyors, including Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider and Argus Cidery, now offer a bottled tepache designed to compete with cider and craft beers.

Even boutique spirits producer Bittermens is helping to increase awareness for tepache. The company launched a 40-percent alcohol-by-volume Tepache Spiced Pineapple liqueur ($44 a 750-ml. bottle) in 2014 that mixes fermented pineapple rinds with clove, cinnamon, allspice and piloncillo. At The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, the Little River cocktail ($12) mixes Bittermens Tepache liqueur, Wódka vodka, Cocchi Americano aperitif and Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, served over ice and garnished with a grapefruit twist.

The Esquire bar manager Houston Eaves believes people are attracted to the unfamiliar nature of tepache and pulque. He notes that in Mexico, these drinks are traditionally consumed on their own or mixed with juices and beer, but they’re being introduced as a mixology component in the United States. Even so, they will likely remain a fringe player. “These drinks are amazing, but they’re rarely available outside the tiny pueblos where they’re made,” Eaves says. “They don’t travel well, and when you change them for export by using pasteurization or preservatives, they lose a lot of the inherent flavors that make them unique.”

In an attempt to bring pulque and tepache to a U.S. audience, bars and restaurants are creating their own. “People who don’t have the opportunity to taste these products where they’re actually made can now experience them first-hand,” Eaves says. “These drinks are cultural treasures.”