Before mezcal, before tequila, there was pulque — believed to be the oldest alcoholic beverage in North America.
“It’s pre-Aztec,” notes Ross Graham, founder of the Miami Cocktail Company, which recently began using the ancient libation in its contemporary line of bottled, ready-to-serve cocktails.
Like mezcal or tequila, pulque is made from the Mexican agave plant. It is fermented but not distilled, making it more of a wine than a spirit, unlike its aforementioned agave-based brethren. Traditionally, it’s also a lot less potent, around 4 to 6 percent alcohol by volume, roughly on par with your average American mass-market beer.
Historically, it was a very popular drink in Mexico, with dedicated taverns called pulquerias populating the country at least until the mid-20th century, when beer began to dominate. The drink is slowly becoming fashionable again, particularly in and around Mexico City.
For Graham, the usually milky-colored, earthy-flavored liquid offered a creative solution to his company’s margarita dilemma — and a great story to boot.
This past spring, Graham’s company debuted its new line of small-batch organic bottled cocktails, including versions of the sangria and mimosa, both wine-based concoctions made with fresh organic fruit juices. Graham also wanted to offer a margarita, but the traditional recipe calls for tequila, making it a no-go for most grocery stores. Researching agave-based alternatives, however, he soon stumbled upon pulque. Says Graham, “The more I learned about pulque, the more I learned about agave wine, the more I thought, ‘Wow, this is really something.'”
And because federal regulators consider pulque a wine, not a spirit, it’s easier to get onto supermarket shelves.
For his soon-to-debut Cooper Pot Margarita, Graham sources the stuff from a small-batch producer in Jalisco, Mexico, then fortifies it using even more agave. Add some organic key lime juice and a splash of organic Valencia orange and — voilà— “the purest sense of a margarita,” he says.
When the bottled margarita ($14.99; 12.5 percent ABV) arrives in stores this summer, the company plans to offer free tastings. Graham says it’s the perfect opportunity to spread the word about pulque: “We can tell people, ‘Listen, this is not a wine-based margarita. This is pulque.'”
To hear him tell it, the beverage seems poised for a big breakthrough, especially when you consider the recent surge in popularity of mezcal in America. Says Graham, “The next natural leap from that is pulque.”