Mexico's vibrant large cities such Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey pulse to the beat of their many nightclubs. In the capital in particular, nightlife is sophisticated and includes everything from swanky cocktail bars to exclusive mezcalerías. Oaxaca, Jalisco and several other states are particularly renowned for their artisanal mezcals and tequilas, while the craft beer movement is making massive inroads in Baja, the Pacific Coast and the capital. Elsewhere, you can always find a chilled Corona beer.
Mexicans love tequila. They drink it on large and small national holidays, at funerals and anniversaries, at casual lunches, and at dinner and in bars with friends. Legally, tequila is Mexico's Champagne. All tequila has to come either from the state of Jalisco, or specifically designated areas in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, and is protected with a Designation of Origin (DO) by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council). This organization ensures that all tequila sold throughout the world comes from these parts of western Mexico. This arid area with highland soil creates the perfect conditions for the blue agave, the plant from which tequila is distilled, to grow. No tequila made in China (or elsewhere), por favor.
Taste is a key word when it comes to tequila. Tequila has become more and more sophisticated and today is considered a refined drink that rivals an imported single-malt whiskey or a quality cognac, and not only in price but in its smooth, warm taste. Today’s finest tequilas are meant to be enjoyed in a small glass, with pleasure, in tiny sips.
The process of making tequila starts by removing the piña (heart) of the blue agave plant. This piña is then steamed for up to 36 hours, a process that softens the fibers and releases the aguamiel (honey water). This liquid is funneled into large tanks where it is fermented. Fermentation determines whether the final product will be 100% agave or mixto (mixed). The highest-quality tequila is made from fermenting and then distilling only aguamiel mixed with some water. In tequilas mixtos, the aguamiel is mixed with other sugars, usually cane sugar with water. When tequila is 100% agave it will say so on the label. If it doesn’t say 100%, it is a mixto.
The next step in the tequila-making process is to distill the aguamiel and store it in barrels for aging. The aging is important, especially for today’s fancier tequilas, because it determines the color, taste, quality and price. Silver or blanco (white) is clear and is aged for no more than 60 days. Tequila blanco is used primarily for mixing and blends particularly well into fruit-based drinks. Tequila reposado (rested) is aged from two to nine months. It has a smooth taste and light gold color. Tequila añejo (old) is aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 months. The best-quality añejos are aged up to four years. Tequila añejo has a velvety flavor and a deep, dark color. These three kinds of tequilas are equally popular in Mexico, and it is entirely a matter of personal taste that determines which one to drink.
Mezcal is tequila’s brother and it is currently experiencing a boom with people who believe tequila has gone too mainstream (and expensive!). Mezcalerías (bars specializing in mezcal) are a recent trend, especially in cities. Like tequila, mezcal is distilled from agave plants, but mezcal doesn’t have to come from blue agave, or from the tequila-producing areas of Jalisco. In other words, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Since mezcal can be made with any type of agave plant, it is produced throughout the country; methods of production and quantities of agave involved vary widely from place to place.
In February 2017, the controversial NOM 70 legislation passed into law, stipulating that, according to the CRM (Consejo Regulador Mezcal), all mezcal that's not produced within the newly designated area consisting of the nine states of Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luís Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas may not use the name 'mezcal' but must instead be called 'aguardiente de agave'. Since 'aguardiente' carries negative connotations and since it is felt by many that the law is less about proper regulation of mezcal and more about forcing out smaller producers, this is set to impact negatively on independent distilleries.
If tequila and mezcal are brothers, then pulque would be the father of Mexican spirits. Two thousand years ago ancient Mexicans started to extract the juice of agave plants to produce a milky, slightly alcoholic drink that the Aztecs called octli poliqhui. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they started to call the drink pulque. Even though pulque has a lower alcohol content than tequila or mezcal, it is much harder on the palate. Because it is not distilled, it retains an earthy, vegetal taste and has a thick, foamy consistency that some people find unpleasant. In some places it is mixed with fruit juices, such as mango or strawberry, to make it more palatable. When pulque is mixed with juices it is called curado.
For some visitors, ‘Una cerveza, por favor’ is their most commonly used Spanish phrase while in Mexico. This makes sense. Mexican cerveza is big, and it's a great match with, well, Mexican food! Most Mexican brands are light and quench beautifully the spiciness of a plate of enchiladas. Beers are also a great companion for the thousands of fútbol matches that we follow in this country with religious zeal.
Two major breweries dominate the Mexican market. Grupo Modelo, now owned by Belgium-based AB InBev, makes around 18 brands, among them Corona, Victoria, Modelo Especial, Pacífico, Montejo and Negra Modelo. Although Corona is one of the world's best-selling beers, beer aficionados regard Negra Modelo, a darker beer, as the brewery’s jewel. In the industrial city of Monterrey, Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (now a subsidiary of Heineken International) produces Sol, Carta Blanca, Dos Equis, Superior, Tecate and Bohemia, among others. The original early-20th-century version of Dos Equis, the darker and fuller-bodied Dos Equis Ámbar, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity today. In the last few years, however, microbrews (cervezas artesanales), have exploded onto the beer scene and a mind-boggling choice of local brews is increasingly offered in the better restaurants and bars. The variety of Mexican beers allows for drinking them in many different environments. A day on the beach calls for a Corona, a Superior or a Pacífico. Victoria and Montejo are good matches for seafood; Modelo Especial and Carta Blanca go really well with meat; and a Bohemia or Negra Modelo would pair perfectly with a very good, decadent dinner.
Now may be the right time to expand your Spanish vocabulary to include ‘Una copa de vino, por favor.’ Although the wine industry is still much smaller than that of tequila or beer, Mexican wines are leaping forward at a great rate. Since the 1990s, challenged in part by the success of Californian, Chilean and Argentinean wines, Mexican producers began yielding good wines in nine regions, from Querétaro to Sonora, with the best coming from Valle de Guadalupe, in the north of Baja California (the area even boasts a wine route). The two larger wineries in Mexico, Pedro Domecq and LA Cetto, offer solid table wines and some premium labels such as Chateau Domecq and Private Reserve Nebbiolo. ‘Boutique wineries’ with names such as Monte Xanic, Casa de Piedra and Casa Valmar are also producing great wine in smaller quantities.
The great variety of fruits, plants and herbs that grow in this country are a perfect fit for the kind of nonalcoholic drinks Mexicans love. All over the country you will find classic juguerías, street stalls or small establishments selling fresh-squeezed orange, tangerine, strawberry, papaya or carrot juices. These places also sell licuados, a Mexican version of a milkshake that normally includes banana, milk, honey and fruit. There are some creative combinations too, with ingredients such as nopal (cactus leaves), pineapple, lemon and orange, or vanilla, banana and avocado.
In taquerías and most restaurants you will find aguas frescas, juices diluted with water and sugar. Some of them resemble iced teas. In agua de tamarindo, the tamarind pods are boiled and then mixed with sugar before being chilled, while agua de jamaica is made with dried hibiscus leaves. Others such as horchata are made with melon seeds and/or rice.
Cantinas are the traditional Mexican watering holes. Until not long ago, women, military personnel and children were not allowed in cantinas, and some cantinas still have a rusted sign stating this rule. Today, everybody is allowed, although the more traditional establishments retain a macho edge. Beer, tequila and cubas (rum and coke) are served at square tables where patrons play dominos and watch fútbol (soccer) games on large TV screens. Cantinas are famous for serving botanas (appetizers) such as quesadillas de papa con guacamole (potato quesadillas with guacamole) or snails in chipotle sauce.
English sailors coined the term ‘cocktail’ upon discovering that their drinks in the Yucatán port of Campeche were stirred with the thin, dried roots of a plant called cola de gallo, which translates as ‘cock’s tail.’ Cocktail bars are a fixture in large cities with a diverse nightlife, such as Mexico City and Guadalajara.
Micheladas are prepared chilled beers ranging from simple drinks to complex cocktails. The basic michelada is a mix of the juice of one or two key limes in a chilled mug, a few ice cubes, a dash of salt and a Mexican cold beer. They are often served with a few drops of hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and Maggi seasoning.