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El Pox: The Ancient Liquor Used By Mayans To Visit The Underworld Is Popping Up In Bars Around The U.S.

As tequila’s more mature cousin – mezcal– continues to gain popularity around the world (popping up in bars from Portland to Melbourne), another Mexican liquor with ancient roots is starting to get its mainstream recognition. Pox is a centuries-old Mexican liquor produced in the mountains of Chiapas and it only just recently gained permission to be produced outside the state.

So, for those of you not already in the know, here’s everything you should know about one of Mexico’s most traditional alcoholic beverages.

Pox is the traditional beverage of the Mayan community in Chiapas.

Pox is a moonshine-like liquor that has been used for Tzotzil Maya ceremonies for centuries and it’s finally making commercial inroads. 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.”

According to Indigenous traditions, pox was said to reveal the invisible bonds between all individuals, whom the Maya believed were all part of one single, giant organism. “[Mayan people] had a saying: ‘In Lak’Ech – Hala Ken’ which means ‘I’m another you, you are another me,’” Hernández told Mitú. “This is still used in some communities as a day-to-day greeting, but especially when drinking pox. Instead of saying ‘¡Salud!,’ one would raise their glass and say ‘In Lak’Ech’ and then your reply while you raise your glass would be ‘Hala Ken.’”

Pox bottles at Poshería
Credit: Poshería

For hundreds of years, Chiapas natives were the only ones to distill pox, as the Mexican government looked the other way on the unregulated, supposedly mind-altering beverage. 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.

“Mezcal has gone viral worldwide, and that has helped other Mexican drinks, such as pox, to be known,” 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, told Food & Wine. 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.

Only six years have passed since Chiapas allowed for pox to be sold outside of the state, and the spirit has just begun distributing to California, Texas, Nevada and Washington. You can find it in high-end bars like Limosneros and Toro, both in Mexico City, and at Encanto Camino in Tulum.

So what exactly goes into the process behind creating pox?

Siglo-Cero Pox
Credit: Siglo Cero Pox

The ingredients of pox are simple: fresh water, sugar-cane, wheat bran, and fermented corn. Of course, there are variations with the most traditional leaving out the sugar and wheat. Then everything is placed into a vat, boiled and stirred every two hours using wooden sticks for 12 hours. The mixture is then covered and left to ferment for at least a week.

The end result is a clear, smooth liquor with a smoky-corn taste. The best way I like to describe is to imagine if grappa and clear whiskey had a baby. The flavor and color can change by adding fresh herbs such as rosemary, peppermint, lemon tea, and laurel. Its relatively low alcohol content—at 38 percent—might inspire people to drink large quantities, but be warned—the corn and sugar can lead to nauseating hangovers.

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