When Chicago mezcal expert and educator Lou Bank asked a friend in Mexico why more whiskey wasn’t coming out of the corn-producing country, his friend responded to ask if he hadn't tried pox.
The spirit, pronounced like “posh,” is distilled from a mix of corn, wheat, and/or sugar cane, and was originally produced by Chiapas’ indigenous Tzotzil Mayans, who would traditionally drink it during religious ceremonies. In their language, pox means “medicine” or “healing.” Today, the spirit is starting to be seen at some of the world’s best bars, from Mexico City to, only recently, the United States.
A Growing Spirit Category
“Mezcal has gone viral worldwide, and that has helped other Mexican drinks, such as pox, to be known,” says Julio de la Cruz, the founder of pox-focused bar Poshería, located in San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. At his bar, De la Cruz focuses on pox he distills personally. “When we opened nine years ago, nobody knew anything about pox. We were the first to spread the word about this drink.” Now, nearly a decade later, the entrepreneur says customers are asking for the spirit by name.
Despite pox’s growing popularity, the Mexican government has yet to officially recognize it as a distinct category of spirit, which means that there are currently no rules that define how, where or from what materials it’s made.
Experts agree that pox hails from the highlands of Chiapas around San Cristóbal de las Casas, and the municipality of San Juan Chamula, where the Tzotzil Mayans reside. And every producer follows a slightly different recipe, with some more willing to share their method than others.
There's No One Way to Make Pox
“Like most things you eat and drink in Mexico, there’s no one way to make pox,” says Bank. At Poshería, De la Cruz distills and sells numerous types of pox, which range in alcohol from a 19.5%, double-distilled hibiscus-infused digestif that macerates for a year before it’s ready, to a single-distilled ceremonial pox that clocks in at 53% ABV.
Following a method passed down from a Tzotzil community leader, De la Cruz’s general procedure for distillation involves fermenting a blend of organic corn, wheat and sugar cane for seven to 10 days, then putting it through a copper still. He also cites the importance of following a process that coincides with lunar phases, noting that pox production begins with a new moon because it signals “a new beginning.”
“[O]ur production is completely handmade, respecting the ancestral processes but complying with the quality standards of the government,” says De la Cruz, who at the moment is one of the very few pox producers that can export his spirit outside the country.
Those who have traveled to hot spot Tulum, Mexico, in the last year or so may have noticed skinny bottles of Siglo Cero pox––currently the most widely distributed brand on the market and the only one that’s exported to the U.S.––at venues like Arca’s Back Bar, Safari and Chef’s Table at La Zebra. While Back Bar and Safari have stocked the spirit for the last two years, Chef’s Table first introduced it four years ago. Meanwhile, in Mexico City, revered bar Fifty Mils has stocked pox for the last three years.
Siglo Cero founder Isidoro Guindi debuted his pox brand in 2014, but he recognizes that it has only been in the last few years that the beverage category has started to grow. Banking on pox’s continued proliferation, last year he launched a second pox brand, Dondante.
To produce Siglo Cero, Guindi blends four types of ancestral corn (black, red, yellow and white) with spring water, and once the mixture starts to ferment, he adds wheat bran and a type of traditional and unrefined sugar similar to piloncillo. After two weeks, he double-distills the mixture in copper stills, then blends the liquor with a previous distillation to reach his desired taste, one he describes as “the flavor of a toasted Mexican corn tortilla.”
An Old-But-New Cocktail Ingredient
Guindi, like many bartenders, believes pox is a spirit well-suited for cocktails. “It goes well with citrus ... [and] traditional Mexican products, like tamarind pulp, grilled pineapple and avocado leaf,” says Fifty Mils head bartender Ezequiel Huerta. She describes pox’s flavor as “a complicated combination of toasty and smoky whiskey flavors, with a sweet aftertaste similar to rum.” Huerta offers an off-menu signature pox cocktail called the Hala Ken that calls for the spirit, along with Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, grapefruit, avocado leaf and lime juice, and hoja santa bitters.
While still relatively limited to Mexico, bottles of pox are slowly becoming available in places like California and Texas. “Pox’s flavor is really interesting,” says Los Angeles bartender Clay Wendel, comparing it to rhum agricole. “The cane sugar used in its production provides an earthy, grassy flavor. ... It has a light body and clean taste.” Wendel says he has had great success swapping the spirit into rum-based Tiki drinks.
At Las Almas Rotas, a mezcal bar in Dallas, co-owner Shad Kvetko is an early pox adopter. “It has only been about seven years since pox has been allowed to be sold outside of Chiapas,” he says. Kvetko believes its growing popularity is part of America’s general interest in artisanal products, and the spirit’s unique history tied to “ceremonial use rooted in traditional Mayan beliefs” adds to its appeal. Since pox is still an under-the-radar spirit in the U.S., Kvetko introduces his customers to it with tasting flights dedicated to regional Mexican spirits. While mezcal has already proved to be one of the globe’s hottest liquor categories, perhaps pox will be next.