Traditional Mexican drinks are more than just tequila and margaritas, and they’re certainly far more than tainted alcohol in popular Mexican resorts. In fact, they’re more than just spirits and cocktails, and there are a ton of weird and wonderful traditional Mexican beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) that any visitor travelling to Mexico must at least try to try. Some are super regional, others are super gross and plenty are delicious and almost impossible to replicate outside of the country, so here’s my insider guide to the best Mexican drinks, spirits, beverages and even beer-based cocktails (yes, really) that you should be trying the next time you’re in town.
Made from a mixture of masa (corn hominy), piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar) and water, plus cinnamon, vanilla and sometimes chocolate, atole is Mexico’s warming breakfast drink of choice. If you’re grabbing your early morning meal from a street vendor that is, as you’re unlikely to get atole in a sit-down restaurant. I’ve never actually tried atole (the texture just seems like it would be…unpleasant), but an entire tamale and atole breakfast loving country can’t possibly be wrong – it must be one of the best hot Mexican drinks.
Champurrado is basically chocolate atole. Not tried this one either, but it strikes me as more appealing than atole, plus the name is way more fun to say.
CAFÉ DE OLLA
Arguably one of the best Mexican hot drinks, I feel like you either take immediately to café de olla, or you just never really like it. Personally, I really like it, although it can sometimes be hard to find a good one. Literally translating to ‘coffee from a saucepan’, it’s a fairly watery, cinnamon flavoured coffee that is sweetened with piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar). The best café de olla I’ve had to date was at a breakfast buffet in the mountains of Puerto Vallarta.
The typical English translation of aguas frescas as ‘fresh waters’, or even ‘cool waters’, really does not do justice do the beautiful simplicity of a good agua fresca on a hot Mexican day. Made from fresh fruit (or some kind of flower or grain), plus water and sometimes added sugar, aguas frescas are usually served from street carts and ladled out of giant plastic jars into huge polystyrene cups. A litre of these curbside waters will cost around 20 pesos on average, and they have a ton of flavours. The first one I ever had was of melon, but barley water (agua de cebada) deserves a special mention for being SO FUCKING GOOD. You’ll never go back to dilute again.
AGUA DE JAMAICA
Also known as hibiscus flower water in English, agua de Jamaica is made by boiling up the dried hibiscus flowers with water, before letting it cool, diluting it and adding a literal shit ton of sugar. Seriously. So good, but so sugary. It’s one of my favourite traditional Mexican drinks and one of the most iconic bebidas mexicanas.
Perhaps one of the best-known Mexican aguas frescas, horchata is rice water flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla. Here’s a good authentic horchata recipe, because there’s no greater betrayal than ordering horchata and then realising it was made from a packet powder mix though. You can also get pink horchata. I literally have no idea how it differs from the creamy coloured version in anything other than tone, but I maintain that it tastes so much better.
Shaved ice, mixed with fruit, chamoy and chili, the chamoyada is more or less my worst nightmare, because I’ve still not managed to acquire that peculiarly Mexican fondness for spicy sweetness. However, chamoyadas minus the chamoy (lol) I could totally get on board with.
Soothing fruit punch for the soul, ponche is popular around Christmas time and is typically sold in large vats by streetside vendors. Although, having said that, there’s at least one seller I know of in Coyoacán, Mexico City who’s there year-round, if you need to get that Mexican punch fix. The best ponche tends to include a mixture of pretty much any winter fruits, although the inclusion of guavas and tejocotes (small fruits that look like crabapples) are essential, plus a stick of sugar cane and sometimes a splash of piquete (or, alcohol).
Nope, I didn’t miss an ‘e’ from the end, nor is pre-Hispanic pozol a soupy treat topped with radishes, lettuce and diced onion. Instead, it’s a bizarre looking cold chocolate drink made from fermented corn dough and water, flavoured with cacao. It’s actually very similar to the aforementioned tejate, as well as a Veracruz variation on the corn and chocolate concoction known (rather unfortunately) as pópo. Local myth states that those who try and like pozol while in Tabasco will end up living there.
Not to be confused with the similarly spelled and pronounced Tecate beer brand, tejate is actually a popular Oaxacan drink that’s made from a paste (made up of toasted maize, cacao, flor de cacao and mamey pits) mixed with water. Usually served with a carved-out gourd from what looks like a giant washing up bowl, it’s genuinely super unappealing looking, on account of the fermented foam that settles on the surface of the drink. I’ve actually tried this and, honestly, it tastes slightly like dirt.
I’ll be honest with you, even though it’s one of the most authentic Mexican drinks, tejuino is fucking gross. It’s a cold drink that looks deceptively refreshing on a hot Guadalajara day, but don’t be fooled, because it’s essentially made from fermented corn dough, mixed with a bit of piloncillo and then topped with a ball of lemon ice shavings. It’s suuuuper common in Jalisco.
A pineapple-ier version of tejuino, tepache (the Mexican pineapple drink) is made from fermented fruit (usually pineapple, but also things like oranges, apples and guavas) and is then mixed with a dash of piloncillo and cinnamon before serving.
I almooooost forgot to include this, even though it’s probably not one of the most popular Mexican drinks. Tuba is a refreshing fermented drink (what is it with Mexicans and fermenting shit?) made of apples and coconut and topped with nuts, that I like to drink every time I go to Puerto Vallarta, where vendors sell it from huge bottles on the malecón.
I want to take a quick second to give an honorary shout out to my forever fave, and one of the best drinks in Mexico, Tonicol. A brand of vanilla Coke-esque Mexican soda drink, it’s produced in Sinaloa and hard(er) to come by in Mexico City than it ever was in Guadalajara. My boyfriend swears that it’s better from the tap (yes, really) and, obviously, if you get it in a glass bottle instead of a plastic one, it’s far superior. Also, Mexican coke, and it’s disgustingly delicious 70% sugar content.
The epitome of the Mexican spirit world, tequila is one Mexican alcohol that’s known all over the world and has roots (literally) in Jalisco. In fact, the drink is named for the small town of Tequila (read about my tequila tasting day trip to the town here) and is made from fermented blue agave plants (the best brands will use 100% agave azul). Spirits made from agave plants outside of Tequila are also technically not known as tequila.
Mezcal is basically tequila that isn’t produced in Tequila, and is typically cultivated from wild species of the maguey plant. So, all tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila. Got it? Mezcal usually has a far smokier taste than tequila too and is experiencing somewhat of a popularity boom both in Mexico and around the world right now. Personally, I think I lived in Jalisco too long as I prefer tequila and find mezcal far too smoky and strong, but each to their own, and mezcal cocktails are quickly becoming popular drinks in Mexico.
An agave based drink, originating from Jalisco, raicilla is like tequila’s younger, weirder brother.
Sometimes known as aguardiente de henequen, sisal is a distilled spirit similar to mezcal that is produced from the agave heart. It’s produced on the Yucatan Peninsula, mainly in the colourful Mexican town of Izamal.
Moving up north, to the border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, with sotol now. Made from the flower stalk of an extremely slow growing plant known as Desert Spoon, each plant takes 15 years to mature and yields just one bottle of sotol. However, unlike the agave plants which produce tequila and other popular spirits, Desert Spoon plants produce more than one flower in their lifetime.
I’ve been vocal about HOW FUCKING NOT-A-FAN of pulque I am and I stand by that assessment of this slightly snot-like in texture drink that is apparently incredibly good for your health. Health benefits aside though, I do not understand the attraction of drinking something that makes me want to gag. However, and due to the practical impossibility of transporting and exporting pulque, you can only really find this drink around Mexico’s central highlands and so, snot-texture aside, it’s definitely one of the best drinks to try in Mexico.
Bet you didn’t realise the after-dinner coffee liqueur favourite Kahlúa was Mexican, did you? Well, fun fact alert, it is. Kahlúa actually originated in the eastern state of Veracruz and was once famous for having an executive board made up only of women. Revolutionary.
Veracruz isn’t the only Mexican liquor producing state in the country though, as the Yucatan Peninsula also has its own (lesser-known) Mexican alcoholic drinks offering in the form of Xtabentún. This sweet drink, which apparently goes great with coffee, is made of anise seeds and honey mixed with rum. Drink it straight and ice cold, or mix it with a shot of tequila for a ‘Mayan coffee’.
Supposedly originating in the state of Puebla, rompope is not really a spirit, although it is one of the more famous Mexican drinks. In fact, it’s basically Mexican eggnog, made from eggs, milk and vanilla, with rum and a flavouring of your choice. It’s common to get rompope flavoured with nuts.
Pronounced ‘posh’ rather than like the pustular disease, pox is a ceremonial spirit favoured by people in Chiapas, especially those in the small and insular town of San Juan Chamula, just outside of San Cristóbal. It still maintains a ritual significance, is particularly important to the Mayan people and is easily one of the most traditional Mexican drinks.
Most people imagine tequila to be a drink that you shot, rather than use for Mexican mixed drinks. This assumption is wrong on both counts, as you’re actually supposed to sip a good tequila (and you should only need salt and lime if you’re drinking a particularly shitty brand), plus you can totally use tequila as a mixer. One of the best tequila cocktails is a charro negro (black cowboy), which mixes tequila and coke, plus a dash of lime juice and salt, over ice.
The paloma is basically a charro negro that’s switched out the coke for fizzy grapefruit juice (usually Squirt or Fresca, but if you’re in the UK, Lilt will do). A good paloma is one of the most iconic and traditional Mexican cocktails.
Perhaps the most iconic Mexican cocktail that is actually, maybe, probably not Mexican. The margarita has a ton of mythology behind its invention and many lay claim to this simple yet refreshing Mexican beverage. There’s no two ways about it now though, the humble margarita (which combines tequila, Triple Sec and lime juice, served in a salt rimmed glass) is synonymous with Mexican drinking and one of the best drinks to order in Mexico. Frozen margaritas perhaps not so much.
RUSO NEGRO (BLACK RUSSIAN)
While the name screams Russian (literally), the ingredients are aaaall Mexican. Coke and Kahlúa combined make this simple cocktail.
RUSO BLANCO (WHITE RUSSIAN)
Made into a cult favourite by The Dude, the ruso blanco is another Mexican cocktail which switches out the coke of the Black Russian for milk. Sounds gross, but is actually very pleasant. I’m a recent convert to a good ruso blanco.
A tequila based cocktail, with sangrita (a typically Jalisciense non-alcoholic concoction made up of lime, orange and pomegranate juice mixed with chili powder) and fizzy grapefruit juice, vampiros are served with ice and a splash of lime juice in a salt rimmed glass. Sidenote: most places outside of Jalisco now mistakenly add tomato juice to sangrita recipes, which is tasty but not traditional.
I wasn’t even sure which category this drink should fall under, as it’s neither non-alcoholic nor a cocktail in the traditional sense. However, given the Jalisciense pajarete is made from a mixture of milk straight from the udder of a cow, chocolate powder, sugar, sometimes coffee and vanilla, plus a dash of alcohol, I guess ‘cocktail’ is the best way to describe it. Honestly, if you’re thinking this sounds really gross, I’m with you. I remember the first time I heard about (and saw) pajaretes being made, on the way to pick pitayas with my friend Braulio in a tiny Jalisco village, and it was a hard pass from me. I’m not a milk fan at the best of times, so watching it ‘poured’ straight from the teet was a bit much.
Curados are essentially flavoured pulques, and typically come in fruity flavours or nutty notes.
If you try to explain the concept of a michelada to someone who’s never had one before, you’ll probably be met with wrinkled noses and furrowed brows. Fair enough, it does sound minging after all. I mean, for a start, it involves putting ice into your beer and then mixing in a bizarre concoction of spicy, seafood-y, tomatoey sauces, plus some lime and salt for good measure. The result? The perfect refreshing drink or lunchtime accompaniment that is the best hangover cure since Lucozade and leftover Dominos pizza (a.k.a. the Cemre special). Due to the weird combination of multiple ingredients, seasonings and condiments, no one michelada will taste the same as the last. Personallly, I prefer those that have gone heavy on the clamato (clam juice) and held back on the tomato.
If you thought the idea of a Mexican beer cocktail which included clam juice and Worcestershire sauce was strange, buckle in, because I’m about to introduce you to the gomichela, the Mexican drink that seems like it came straight from the mind of a child. These beer cocktails are essentially micheladas, but with added chamoy and gummy sweets. Yum.
A drink that’s pretty much exclusive to Jalisco, especially the town of Tequila, is the pachecada. This involves mixing the aforementioned tejuino with beer, a healthy sprinkle of salt plus the juice of four or five limes, and then charging people to drink it. I spotted a pachecada vendor as we were leaving Tequila, so (un)fortunately, I’ve not tried this drink yet.
I kind of don’t even think a simple chelada counts as a true beer cocktail, but it doesn’t really fit elsewhere in this guide to Mexican drinks, so, whatyagunnado? Chelada is a beer served in an ice-cold glass that has lime juice in the bottom and a salted rim. It’s like the classier version of squirting a dried-up lime into your Corona at the club and pretending you’re a worldly beer expert.
Did I miss off any traditional Mexican drinks or famous Mexican cocktails? Let me know in the comments!
(Oh, and if you can spare a couple of quid, why not donate to the running of this blog and/or buy me one of the Mexican drinks listed above!)