Thursday, June 20, 2024

Mexico’s relationship with alcohol

For many of us, banning alcohol is strongly associated with conservative Protestant Christian thought, itself a result of temperance movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mexico never had a “Prohibition” like the U.S., but its current reputation as a drinking and partying haven is not entirely accurate either. 

The history of alcohol usage in Mexico is a mix of restrictions and tolerance, but their bases have varied depending on the social and cultural landscape. One constant is the dominating role of the country’s many agave species, beginning in pre-history and continuing to the present day.

Agave, Mesoamerica and religion 

The longest-documented alcohol in Mexico is pulque, the fermented sap of certain agave (magüey) plants prevalent in the central Mexico highlands. The plant has its own goddess, Mayahuel (depicted with her own vessel of pulque in the Laud Codex). But the drink also appears in a story about Quetzalcoatl, who committed a sexual transgression while drunk, and was eventually banished, effectively a morality story against wanton consumption.

The records also indicate that its consumption was highly restricted by both social rank and ceremonial purposes for aged and pregnant women and was also used as a kind of “reward” for great deeds. Breaking these rules was heavily punished and could mean death even for high-ranking priests. 

Colonial period

The Spanish and the rest of the old order swept away all these prohibitions. This meant pulque was not banned for the general public, but it did become stigmatized as something only for the most marginalized segment of society – which remains to this day.

To replace it, the Spanish quickly introduced crops to create the beverages they knew – sugar cane, apple, grains and grapes for wine. 

Under pressure from wineries in Spain, the Crown forbade all alcoholic beverage production in 1595. This prohibition (and its avoidance) shaped Mexico’s drinking habits.

Only the very rich could afford imported alcohol, and the edict had its intended effect on alcohol made from cultivated crops. Beer and coconut wine disappeared. Cider and rum nearly did. As it was necessary for communion, wine production for the Church was allowed – one reason why Casa Madero, Mexico’s oldest winery, survived in Coahuila. But in general, there would be no commercial wine production in Mexico until the late 20th century

That left agave. Growing wild in just about all of Mexico, it became the basis of almost all alcohol production – legal and illegal – to this day. Pulque survived, but more importantly, the cactus would be used for distilled spirits of various names – the most common of which is “mezcal.”

Authorities could not eliminate the plant, nor the basic distillation technology required to ferment it. Colonial records show a mix of suppression (prosecution) and tolerance (tax collection), but their accuracy is questionable given the industry’s clandestine nature and bribery of local officials. 

Post-Independence 

Social reorganization hit Mexico again during the struggle for independence in the early 19th century, but the mass importation or production of non-agave alcohol would not immediately follow. 

Modernization and Europeanization efforts by the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship of 1884-1910 is responsible for one major change – the rise of beer. 

The symbol of progress during the late 19th century was the railroad. Lines connected Mexico City to haciendas in the provinces, allowing the very profitable shipping of perishable pulque into the capital. 

Its consumption among the lower classes became visible, leading to a backlash from more elite sectors of society. A crusade against pulque began, blaming it for the social ills of the lower classes, including their perceived resistance to “modernization.” Pulque was also accused of being a health issue, with claims that feces were used in its production.

Simultaneously, German and French brewers reintroduced beer to Mexico on a large scale. As with all things European, it was embraced by the same elite who had shunned pulque, and makers took advantage to promote beer as the civilized alternative. Breweries appeared in various parts of the country. Today, modern brands like Montejo and Tecate hearken back to these breweries. 

What remained of the pulque industry that had survived the bad press and the Mexican Revolution collapsed shortly after, when the new government dismantled the hacienda system. 

Northwest “moonshine” and smuggling

The Revolution had one other significant effect on Mexican alcohol consumption – the rise of “moonshine” in the west/northwest.

The years that followed the revolution marked the height of temperance movements in the West. Mexico never had a national  “Prohibition,” but northern Revolution-era generals were aware of them and were sympathetic to the ban across the border. 

Pancho Villa was particularly anti-alcohol, keen to promote military readiness and general social welfare. This forced several regional spirits – bacanora in Sonora, sotol in Chihuahua and raicilla in Jalisco underground yet again. Their suppression would not fully end until the 1990s. 

This may seem odd given that northern Mexico took advantage of US Prohibition to make and smuggle whiskey and set up bars all along the border. But “Mexican moonshine” was produced by and for the most marginalized, making them vulnerable to large-scale crackdowns by regional rulers.

Modern era

Marketing expert Ricardo Pico and master distiller don Eduardo Arrieta share a NocheLuna mezcal, which they produce by traditional methods in Chihuahua (credit Leigh Thelmadatter)

The past decades have been far kinder to Mexican alcohol makers, both economically and culturally.

Bars along the border introduced Americans to tequila, and by the mid-20th century, the drink was internationally known. Tequila and the tourism industry would open the door for other drinks, notably commercial beer (like Corona) in the 1980s and mezcal in the 2000s.

New beverages are being introduced, including whiskeys featuring Mexico’s heritage corn varieties and a craft beer industry that is now coming into its own.

All this comes with social and legal blessings because alcohol is highly profitable and Mexico now takes pride in products that conserve its heritage and promote its agriculture. This newfound “prestige” means that more people, from more strata of society are getting involved. 

Pulque remains a very niche market, but that is due to its highly perishable nature. But major cities in and near pulque-producing areas have seen the rise of “neo-cantinas” where younger drinkers can congregate, and this has helped the drink to remain relevant, even in the 21st century.

Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico over 20 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.

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