Meet Pox: Whiskey, Rum and Mezcal’s Mind-Altering Love Child

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Made from corn in rural communities hidden up in the mountains, Pox may seem like moonshine upon first glance. But look again: It’s also made from sugar cane, and it comes in flavors like coconut and cocoa. Sounds a lot like rum, right? Look one more time: It’s a Mexican spirit sipped straight between bites of orange—so, it’s like mezcal? Pox isn’t any of the above—it’s all of them rolled into one. And it’s awesome.

If it’s been a second since you last swung through Chamula in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, you might not have come across pox (pronounced “posh”). The spirit only recently emerged from native communities descended from the Maya, like the Tzotzil, in which men are typically responsible for kicking off distillation every new moon. According to David A. Hernández—mixologist at Catch Playa del Carmen on the coast of the Yucatán region—the drink and its traditions derive from a ritualistic Mayan drink of fermented maize, consumed by priests and warriors as a means of traveling to the underworld. Today, the fermented maize is distilled much like rum, sometimes with the addition of sugar cane and wheat, and drunk by anyone—whether or not they’re looking to visit the underworld.

Ancient 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 says. “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.’”

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. But in 2012, the state granted certification for the spirit, allowing distillers to sell it throughout Mexico. One pox arbiter, Julio de la Cruz, has opened Posheria Merida, also in Yucatán, with plans to export the drink across the world (including the U.S. next year).

After learning a recipe from a Chamula native in 2010, De La Cruz set out to rescue the tradition of making pox entirely from corn, which yields a taste that he describes as the flavor of smoked corn tortilla. “We use organic corn, which imparts a little sweet finish at the end,” he says. “First you feel the power of pox—it’s a powerful drink with strong personality—but at the end you have a little taste of sweetness.”

Posheria Merida produces two versions of the house brand, Pox Bankilal (“bankilal” means older brother or protector in Tzotzil): a single distillation black label bottled at 53 percent ABV and a double-distilled white label bottled at 39 percent. The black label more closely resembles the traditional drink consumed at festivals and ceremonies, which Hernández says can reach a breathtaking 70 percent ABV.

While the white label is great for mixing into cocktails, De La Cruz suggests drinking the black label straight, tempering its fiery wallop with a slice of orange dusted with ground coffee, alternating bites and sips as one does with mezcal. Others pair their neat pox with coffee-dusted jicama. “It’s not for young people,” De La Cruz warns. “You only need one to feel very good. The effect is to feel very awake, but also very calm.”

At Catch, Hernández uses another recent commercial pox brand, Siglo Cero (meaning Zero Century, referring to the year 0, the height of Maya culture), in cocktails. Like Pox Bankilal, Siglo Cero comes in two varieties, blanco and negro, but unlike Bankilal, Siglo Cero mixes wheat and sugar cane with the fermented maize. “On the nose you have discrete flower and fruit aromas,” Hernández says of the spirit. “The mouthfeel is that of sweet corn, soft and full. The corn continues on the palate, fairly crisp with a few hints of wildflowers mixed in. It has nice lingering burn which matures into more of that sweet corn taste.” He also points out that the higher ABV negro distillation highlights the wheat in the mix, while the sugar cane gives both versions of the spirit some heat. “There’s a magical essence to the mix,” Hernández says. “It’s quite unique. Even after the spirit has passed on your breath you can feel the sweet taste and herbal aromas.”

Courtesy of Catch Playa del Carmen

To present pox to the drinking public, Hernández serves the blanco Siglo Cero in a drink called Poxata, a boozy horchata made with a pecan horchata and fresh orange juice that’s reminiscent of the traditional fruit pairing. It’s a creamy, nutty concoction that Hernández says connects drinkers to the culinary experiences passed down from Mayan ancestors. “It might not hold the key to the underworld,” Hernández admits, “but it certainly holds a key to our past.”

If you want to try some of that Mayan heritage yourself, grab a Poxata at Catch or get a bottle from Posheria Merida, where a 500-milliliter bottle of pox will run you about 320 pesos (about $18), or from Siglo Cero, where a 700-milliliter bottle costs about $20. And look out for Pox Bankilal when it makes its way to the U.S. next year.