In Guadalajara, sipping tejuino from a plastic bag is the American equivalent of drinking iced tea on a hot day, according to Alex Valencia, the co-owner and lead bartender at New York City’s La Contenta, La Contenta Oeste, and upcoming La Contenta Next Door. Part of Mexico’s repertoire of fermented pre-Colombian drinks—including pulque, an agave ferment, and pineapple-based tepache—tejuino is made from corn, Mexico’s most iconic crop, and specifically, nixtamalized corn.
Although it’s sold by street vendors throughout Mexico, the western states of Michoacán, Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit, and Sinaloa comprise the country’s tejuino belt, and each region makes and serves the drink a little differently. Generally, to prepare tejuino, you boil piloncillo in water, blend masa with more water, combine the two liquids, and cook briefly before transferring the viscous mixture to a clean container and fermenting it for two to three days, just until fermentation starts. The alcohol content is nominal, less than 2%.
Growing up, Valencia drank tejuino with lots of ice, several glugs of hot sauce, lime, and a scoop of nieves de limon, or lime sorbet. With its layers of corn, lactic fermentation, rich syrup, spice, and acid, a decked-out street tejuino can seem like a low- to no-ABV cocktail in its own right, and American bartenders are just starting to catch on to its potential.
Mining Mexican Flavors
Cliseria “Clio” Padilla-Flores was born in Aguascalientes, a state in Mexico’s dead-center, and moved to Sarasota, Florida, at age seven. She started working in bars at 18, found craft cocktails along the way, and is now the bar manager at Sage, a globally inspired restaurant with a culinary-leaning bar program.
Padilla-Flores has never returned to Aguascalientes and mines family stories about food and drinking for cocktail inspiration. She learned about tejuino from a friend who visited Michoacán, and returned with intel on this “fermented corn flour thing,” says Padilla-Flores. “I was like, what the hell is that?” Another friend’s grandmother had a recipe for tejuino that tasted like “a candied tamal,” she says. “As a newbie, it was so out of my realm. How do you even ferment corn flour?”
Padilla-Flores soon began to tinker, adding tamarind paste and cinnamon into the mix. A shaken tejuino-mezcal cocktail soon followed. She had to fight to get it on the menu, but her “Masa Dulce,” with tejuino, mezcal, lime, guajillo-serrano chile tincture, and salt, is one of Sage’s top sellers.
Irving Gonzalez also hails from Aguascalientes, and as a kid, his grandma took him to a park “where there was this old guy selling tejuino with lime sorbet. I didn’t like it at all. It tasted like vinegar,” he recalls.
Gonzalez got his start bartending in Tijuana and Baja California before joining the beverage team at the Westin in San Diego. He’s now the owner of Snake Oil Cocktail Co., an events and drinks consulting group. Moving to southern California shifted his palate and introduced him to tropical bar classics, and he eventually revisited tejuino for a cocktail competition.
Researching the Pearl Diver, Gonzalez found parallels between sweet, thick tejuino and the drink’s butter-based gardenia mix. “Both provide a nice texture, and the tejuino has this vinegary component from fermentation,” says Gonzalez, whose “Am I Rum” featured local Seven Cage Tiki gin, El Dorado rum, Rum Fire, tejuino, gardenia mix, lime, and a pinch of salt.
In cocktails, he thinks of tejuino as a corn-based orgeat. Gonzalez says it pairs particularly well with bourbon and mirrors the flavor of Nixta, a newly launched nixtamalized corn liqueur. He has even diluted tejuino with coconut water and used it in place of coconut cream in Piña Coladas.
Upcycling Leftover Masa
Denver’s Bruto was born as a pandemic-era pop-up, essentially a “taco stand in an alley,” says bartender Andrew Booth. Central to the concept, which has since evolved into a 14-seat Latin-inspired chef’s counter, is freshly nixtamalized corn and house-milled masa. In December, Booth salvaged a batch of over-milled blue corn by turning it into atole, a warm, sweet masa drink that’s typically served around the holidays. He also tried to make chicha morada, the Peruvian corn beer, but when a batch failed, Bruto’s chef, Michael Diaz de Leon, suggested tejuino instead.
Diaz de Leon’s team mills heirloom Oaxacan corn about three days a week for tortillas and tatelas, and Booth snags the leftover dough for his not-exactly-traditional tejuino. He takes one pound of masa dough and blends it with 3 liters of hot water and 1 cup sugar; he doesn’t cook the mixture and adds pineapple skins (à la tepache) to activate fermentation. After two to three days of building flavor and kombucha-level acid, the corn turns from blue to neon pink, and most of the sugar has been gobbled up by yeast.
Right now, Booth is serving tejuino in a chilled Martini glass as part of his non-alcoholic beverage pairing menu to accompany quail and koji-wheat berry risotto, and he just added a tejuino cocktail with mezcal, demerara syrup, and Angostura bitters. He says Bruto’s style of tejuino would work well in place of a shrub and make a “sick” cobbler with tequila, stone fruit, and berries. “Guests love it. I’ve had a couple people tell me that it’s one of the most exciting drinks they’ve ever had,” says Booth.
Make It Your Own
There’s no wrong way to make tejuino, but there are plenty of choose-your-own-adventure methods. Padilla-Flores makes hers extra-thick, using 1 liter of water to 8 ounces of maseca and letting it thin out in the cocktail shaker; she stores batches for up to a month. Gonzalez thinks un-nixtamalized corn works best and ferments his tejuino for seven days. Valencia’s business partner, Luis Arce Mota, grew up in Mazatlán and adds lemon juice to the pre-ferment; lime is also common. His tejuino has the consistency of set gelatin, while others are more akin to loose polenta. I experimented with a traditional recipe and inexpensive maseca, as well as versions with raw heirloom red masa flour (4:1 water:flour), and got two totally different expressions of texture and flavor.
Valencia currently is developing tejuino and tejuino-based cocktails for La Contenta Next Door, a project that will showcase cebiche and tropical drinks from Mexico’s Pacific coast. As part of his process, he consults with elders back home to make sure he understands traditional preparations before tweaking them for a modern bar program.
When Valencia called friends in Guadalajara to get his hometown tejuino specs, he learned that his go-to vendor, nicknamed El Tranzas, died last year. El Tranzas didn’t leave a recipe, but Valencia did get a secondhand account of the process: He combined masa and water and let the raw mixture ferment for two days. After fermentation, El Tranzas would add a rich cinnamon-infused piloncillo syrup and, critically, a type of tamarind tea made from soaked and crushed tamarind pods.
Valencia isn’t sure how reliable the method is, but that’s where he’ll start. “It’s part of the culture we’re losing. The new generation doesn’t understand it. They don’t really care. But I have the resources to dig into native customs and communities in Mexico,” says Valencia. “And New York City needs to have tejuino.”