Pox (pronounced: "posh") is a transparent high-proof spirit originating in Chiapas, Mexico that's distilled from a mix of corn, wheat bran, and sugarcane. With these ingredients, the spirit is closer to rum or whiskey than classic Mexican spirits like mezcal and tequila.
The original producers are indigenous Tzotzil Mayans from the Mexican state of Chiapas. For them, the corn-spirit played a key role in religious ceremonies and was one way to visit the underworld.
Right now, only a few regulations control the production of pox. That means many producers don't follow the traditional set of ingredients and replace the rare corn varieties with cheap sugar and wheat.
Let's take a closer look at the Mexican spirit called pox.
What exactly is Pox?
Pox is a colorless, high-proof spirit invented by the Tzotzil Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico. It's also known as agua ardiente, which translates to "fire water" or "burning water."
Pox is typically made with corn, wheat bran, and sugarcane, but due to little restrictions, some producers mainly use inexpensive sugarcane and wheat for production.
This lack of regulations also leads to a broad spectrum of ABV that ranges from 19% up to 60%. Pox available in the US must contain at least 40% to be referred to as spirit. That's why the few brands selling it in the US all contain at least 40%, some even between 50% to 60%.
As an integral part of the Mayan culture, the spirit plays a significant role in religious ceremonies. Even today, the Mexican spirit is part of many religious rituals across the Chiapas region.
For a long time, it was only available in the Chiapas region as it was prohibited to sell the spirit outside its native territory. However, that changed nine years ago, and pox is now gaining traction in bars across Mexico and the US.
What is Pox Made of?
Traditionally pox is made from a mix of rare local corn varieties, wheat bran, and piloncillo - a sweetener made of sugar cane. In this traditional mix, corn is the most significant ingredient; -wheat and sugar cane are added only in small amounts. However, in the absence of clear regulations, some producers take advantage of this and make pox without (or significantly less of) the most expensive ingredient - corn.
On the other hand, these loose regulations also offer opportunities. They make it a versatile spirit that can be distilled with an assortment of flavoring ingredients such as hibiscus, cacao, and fruits.
How to Produce Pox
Pox is produced by distilling a mix of corn, wheat, and sugar cane in a two (single-distilled) or three-step process (double-distilled) using a copper still:
- Fermentation: The ingredients are mixed in a still and stirred every 1-2 hours for the first 24 hours. After that, the mix is left to ferment for 7 to 10 days. The result is a low-ABV fermented wine called chicha.
- First Distillation: The fermented wine is distilled to a spirit with an alcohol content of around 34% to 36%. Single-distilled expressions are bottled after this step.
- Second Distillation: The corn liquor is distilled again and contains anywhere between 50% to 60% of alcohol by volume.
To produce lower ABV pox-based liqueurs, single or double-distilled pox is infused and macerated with herbs, fruits, and plants. After that, the flavored spirits are sweetened and reduced in alcohol content.
According to Julio de la Cruz, the founder of the Posheria in San Cristóbal de las Casas Chiapas, most of the production is hand-made and timed by the lunar calendar. The process starts with a new moon because this phase stands for a "new beginning."
The Taste of Pox
The flavors can vary depending on the ingredients. The taste of traditionally produced pox, has sweet corn notes, subtle smoky flavors, and an almost rum-like aftertaste. The more corn is used, the stronger the smoky notes in the spirit.
The aroma has similarities with fresh corn tortillas, a subtle sweet note, and more corn. Depending on any additional flavoring, the aroma profile may be more complex. Common flavorings are cocoa, hibiscus, rosemary, tamarind, and local fruits like mango.
The taste is best compared to unaged sugarcane or grain spirits like white rum or unaged American whiskey.
The Best Way to Drink Pox
The best way to discover all the nuances is to drink pox neat. As with mezcal, you can serve the spirit with orange slices, cinnamon, and coffee or cocoa beans.
Due to its complex taste, pox is also great when paired with other ingredients in mixed drinks. For example, its resemblance to white rum makes it an excellent replacement for rum in twists on classic Tiki cocktails like the Mai-Tai.
Pox in Cocktails
There are plenty of ways to use pox in cocktails besides replacing rum in popular Tiki cocktails. Its distinct, unique flavor profile is a perfect option for twists.
Yet, the corn-spirit not only works as a substitute for other spirits but also is excellent in split-base drinks. Pair it with whiskey, rum, or rhum for more complex flavor profiles in your drinks.
As this is a more extensive topic, we have a separate article about cocktails made with pox.
Pox vs. Tequila and Mezcal
Unlike mezcal and tequila, there's no agave involved in making pox. This main difference between the spirits leads to further distinctions. The taste of pox is sweeter and more similar to rum than to mezcal or tequila. Also, the spirit is exclusively produced in Chiapas, whereas the majority of tequila comes from Jalisco, and most mezcal production takes place in Oaxaca.
Here's an overview of how pox differs from tequila and mezcal.
|ABV||19% to 60||35% - 55%||35% to 55%|
|Proof||38 to 120||70 - 110||70 - 110|
|Taste||Sweet corn and subtle smoky notes||Cooked agave, spicy, earthy||Smoky, earthy|
|Produced in||Chiapas||Mainly Jalisco||Mainly Oaxaca|
|Base ingredients||Corn, wheat, sugar cane||Agave||Agave|
The Mayan Spirit that lets you visit the underworld
As a traditional Mayan spirit, it is used in religious ceremonies. In the Tzotzil Mayans language, pox is the equivalent of "medicine" or "healing."
Indigenous communities used it to cure physical and spiritual problems. The high amount of alcohol combined with the burn was associated with healing from stomach pains and being free from evil spirits.
The Mayas believed that the burning sensation after drinking the spirit was caused by evil spirits leaving your body. And the comforting warmth following the burn then would fill the void the evil spirits left behind.
It's also believed that Mayan priests and warriors used pox to try and visit the underworld.
Mexican Spirits Are on the Rise
Pox is the latest member of Mexican spirits aiming to conquer the American Market. For a long time, tequila was the only popular spirit coming from Mexico; -At least on a global level. But with the rise of mezcal, which suddenly went viral, more and more people are getting interested in other Mexican spirits.
That also helped Sotol to establish a place in the world of liquors. And it certainly doesn't hurt pox, either. Additionally, the timing to legally allow selling it outside of the native region was perfect: 2012 was a brilliant time to benefit from the success of mezcal.
Because the Mayan spirit has been kept a secret for such a long time, many bartenders have become curious and begun experimenting with it. Today, you can find it in many bars across Mexico and some North American bars.
Pox is an intriguing and unique spirit with an ancient history. The Mayan aguardiente still plays a significant part in Tzotzil Mayan culture, but it is also one of the new and upcoming Mexican spirits.
If you want to try it yourself, a bottle of Siglo Cero would be a good choice. -It's one of the very few brands that are easily accessible at the moment.