Meet Mexico's Oldest Spirit: Pox Is A Must-Try For Whiskey Fans, According To Spirits Experts

Move over mezcal, another Mexican spirit is appearing on liquor shelves outside of its native country. Pox is made from corn, wheat, and sugarcane. Pronounced "posh," the spirit is finding popularity in cocktails alongside citrus and coffee, and it is also enjoyed straight — especially among whiskey lovers. Yet the unique smoky and toasty flavor profile of this corn-based distillate is only part of its appeal.

Pox is deeply rooted in Maya traditions from indigenous communities in the state of Chiapas, who are said to use it for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. The word pox means "medicine" in the Tzotzil Maya language. In addition to healing, pox is used to mark milestones like birth, death, and celebration. Julio de la Cruz, the founder of the bar Poshería, tells us that in Mexico's southernmost state, "Locals say that pox is 'the bridge between the material and the spiritual worlds.'"

Both tequila and mezcal varieties have rapidly grown in popularity and production over the last decade. Tequila production has increased by about 155%, and mezcal production has jumped from less than 1 million to more than 14 million liters during that time. This opens the door for other Mexican spirits such as pox to gain recognition and appreciation both within and outside of Mexico. We spoke with a few pox experts — both producers and bartenders — to learn more about Mexico's oldest spirit and find out why exactly it's must-try for whiskey fans.

Pox is on the rise in Mexico and the U.S.

Julio de la Cruz first tried pox after being invited to a ceremony by an indigenous community in Tenejapa, Chiapas, where a mayordomo (an authority within the community) gave him his recipe. Seeking to preserve pox and promote its importance in Mexico to the rest of the world, de la Cruz founded Poshería in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas in 2010 (a second location later opened in Mérida, Yucatán). De la Cruz has since seen pox becoming more popular in bars all over Mexico, saying he's found that the more people learn about pox, the more they are interested in trying it.

That's also the case for Ryan McKenzie, owner of the cocktail bar Agency of Record in Midtown Manhattan. McKenzie first encountered pox about six years ago at a cocktail bar in Mexico City. "I had no idea what it was," he says, "and when the cocktail came, I was amazed. I became an instant fan and soon got to know the history of it, which is also incredibly rich."

Mexican distillates are trending in the world of drinks. At Death & Co in NYC's East Village, bartender Marc Rizzuto has similarly seen the impact of increased interest in agave-based spirits from Mexico, such as sotols and raicillas becoming more well known. "... Pox is, to me, it's just the next thing," he tells us, "and it's very easy to get people to enjoy it as well."

Inside the history of Mexico's oldest spirit

In addition to trying it, Julio de la Cruz tells us that Poshería's patrons are also drawn to the history behind pox. The Tzotzil Maya produced pox for use in religious and medical applications, and these practices are said to continue today. "Pox is a living tradition that we try to revalue and dignify," says de la Cruz. The indigenous communities in Chiapas reportedly use the Maya drink of ancestral origin in their ceremonies, rituals, and festivals. For example, he tells us pox is used in cleaning the newly born or recently deceased with the intention of cleaning their spirit.

"It is an important part of the Maya worldview that involves the sun, the moon, the earth, incense, copal, and of course corn, which is one of the most important elements in the Maya culture," de la Cruz says of pox's ceremonial role. "I would personally define Pox as mysticism and ceremony."

As a medicinal elixir, traditional Maya healers believe that pox has the power to cure ailments, according to a local quoted by Fundación Tortilla. They often mix pox with garlic and honey for medicinal purposes, including — as Siglo Cero's poxero master Javier Pérez tells the outlet — reducing stress and depression.

What does pox taste like?

True to its corn base, pox offers tasting notes of corn, with a smoky and toasty finish. Each pox producer maintains its own unique recipe resulting in variations on the flavor. If the pox is made mostly from corn, the smoky flavor will dominate and offer a sweet finish. Pox that includes wheat and sugarcane along with corn will taste sweeter and offer herbal and fruity notes.

Speaking with, Isidoro "Zury" Guindi, co-founder of the pox brand Siglo Cero, likened the flavor to "a toasted Mexican corn tortilla." In addition to the flavor of charred corn, pox imbibers have detected hints of ancho chili, coconut, barbecue, and pickled mustard seed.

"Pox is a unique beverage, not like any other," says Julio de la Cruz. "... Pox has its own great personality." Noting its taste of corn (and the Mexican fondness for corn tortillas), he adds that light notes of citrus and caramel are also left on the palate. Drinking pox is said to produce a feeling of heat in your body followed by a relaxing effect. De la Cruz tells us the Maya people of Chiapas say, "Pox warms up your heart and soul."

How is this Mexican spirit made?

Pox is typically made from corn, wheat, and sugarcane, as previously mentioned. This mixture, along with other ingredients in the producer's distinct recipe, is fermented in wooden casks before being distilled through a copper still.

To produce several varieties of pox at Poshería, Julio de la Cruz aligns production with lunar phases, starting with the new moon. He ferments organic maize, sugarcane, and wheat for seven to 10 days depending on factors such as weather and which stills and copper pipes are used. Poshería maintains the handmade ancestral processes passed down from an indigenous community leader while complying with modern quality standards set by the government. The latter allows it to be one of the few producers to export outside of Mexico.

At Siglo Cero, Javier Pérez grinds and blends white, yellow, black, and red ancestral corn. He tells Fundación Tortilla that, after drying for two months, it is shelled and ground. The corn is mixed with spring water, wheat, and sugarcane in a pine wood container and fermented for 12 to 14 days. After the liquid is distilled in copper stills, it is ready to drink locally at 35% ABV. To refine the flavor and increase the ABV to around 42% for export, Siglo Cero's pox is distilled once more.

How to drink pox straight

One of the best ways to get to know the flavor of pox is to drink it straight up. Julio de la Cruz recommends sipping it little-by-little, especially before or after a meal. Sometimes, it's served alongside a seasonal fruit. Telling us that many indigenous families in Chiapas drink pox as a remedy, he advises a shot of pox to aid a stomachache.

To drink pox the traditional way, Zury Guindi agrees that neat is the way to go. As paraphrased by Forbes, he suggests sipping it from a copita (or clay cup), if possible, and holding it in your "left hand so the energy flows directly to the heart." This initial sip should be followed by a deep exhale in order "to release any evil spirits that may be lurking."

Try pairing pox with bites of coffee beans, citrus or tropical fruit garnishes, or vegetables to bring out a range of flavors. Guindi, for example, recommends to Fundación Tortilla a slice of orange with habanero chili, cucumber, or jicama. This spirit also shines alongside fruit juice or when used to steep fruits or herbs like mango, fig, mint, and cinnamon.

How to use Mexico's oldest spirit in cocktails

Pox is an excellent base for cocktails. Calling it "an incredible hero ingredient" for mixed drinks, Ryan McKenzie recommends experimenting with a pox sour by adding egg white and lemon. Or, whip up a pox tonic with tonic, ginger, and lime. If you're feeling spicy, pair pox with a spice-infused simple syrup, lime juice, and triple sec that's reminiscent of a spicy margarita. 

Meanwhile, at Agency of Record, pox appears in the Rich Media cocktail. Its take on the dirty martini also includes sotol, gin, aloe, and blue cheese olive brine. Of pox's versatility, Marc Rizzuto advises trying this spirit in a stirred cocktail like a Manhattan or an old fashioned. He notes that it works just as well in a lighter, shaken cocktail with some citrus and sugar, like a play on a daiquiri or margarita.

The Posh Posh at Death & Co pairs pox with St. George Green Chile Vodka, Kalani Coconut Liqueur, kiwi, and lime. Of this drink's light, vegetal, and refreshingly sour flavor, Rizzuto says, "The corn from ... the pox is pretty much the star of the cocktail."

Where to find pox in the U.S.

Pox has been produced in Chiapas for generations and has become more prevalent in cocktail bars across Mexico in the past decade. In the United States, pox is also steadily gaining traction on liquor store shelves and cocktail bar menus. Founded in 2010, Siglo Cero was reportedly the first pox producer to break into the United States market in 2017. Zury Guindi followed up its success by launching another pox brand called Dondante.

At New York City's Death & Co, Marc Rizzuto has used both pox brands in cocktails. "It's new to us, and we love that it ... sort of always presents a great challenge. Especially with unfamiliar ingredients," he says of the spirit. "It allows us to see ... what we could do with it and how we can sort of push the boundaries on making something, you know, familiar for a guest, but also that starts turning a little bit of ... the wheels in their brain."

If you can't find pox on the shelves of your liquor store, it's popped up on cocktail menus, like at Restaurant Rebirth in New Orleans, Eight Row in Seattle, Terra Restaurant and Bar at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe, and at Las Almas Rotas in Dallas. In 2023, Eater San Francisco reported the rise of pox in the Bay Area, from Parche and Low Bar in Oakland to Popoca in the East Bay and Foray in Carmel.

Pox vs. whiskey

With its corn base, pox seems to be Mexico's answer to whiskey. Or maybe the inclusion of sugarcane in pox makes it Mexico's answer to rum. Either way, there are significant differences in the production of pox and whiskey. 

For starters, pox skips mashing, and the ingredients go straight to fermenting. After a single distillation, some pox is distilled a second time. Then it's ready to drink. Sometimes, whiskey is triple distilled before it undergoes the all-important aging process. For Scotch whisky, that means you'll have to wait at least three years for it to age in oak barrels, while American bourbon requires a minimum of two years.

The flavor and tasting notes of both pox and whiskey vary depending on the producer and ingredients. Like pox, the grains used impact whiskey's flavor. Generally, whiskey is rich and smooth with a spicy flavor and hints of vanilla and oak. If you're drinking a bourbon, the charred oak barrel that the whiskey is aged in lends a smoky quality. The smokiness of pox is due to the charred corn flavor, while hints of chocolate and citrus are often detected. Pox has a slightly lighter body. Each spirit is great to sip straight, and both pox and whiskey can be used to make infusions.

Discover something new and familiar in pox

As recently as 2010, it seems the Maya people of Chiapas were the only people who made and used pox. When Julio de la Cruz opened the first Poshería location, he offered free tastings to familiarize people new to the spirit. "After nine years, I can tell you that many people are now asking for pox by name," he tells us. "But there's still a lot of people that are not familiar with it."

There are still only a few brands of pox that are widely distributed in the United States, Ryan McKenzie says, so drink enthusiasts looking to expand their palate might have their best luck asking their favorite bartender to feature it in a cocktail. He adds, "We love being able to showcase something that might be newer to people here."

Those familiar with Mexican spirits or even whiskey will find something recognizable in pox, as well as plenty of novel territory to discover. "It's been great, especially when you start talking about it with ... somebody, they just learned a little bit more about something they had no idea if they would or would not have liked," says Marc Rizzuto of pox. "And they loved it because of the way that we paired it in a cocktail."