Entering the Catholic church that sits on the central plaza of San Juan Chamula, in the southeastern state of Chiapas, Mexico, you might expect to see the same simple pews and staid decorations found elsewhere in the country. Instead, the atmosphere is dominated by the smell of pine resin, vivid colors, and idols of Maya gods. Near the altar is a group of curanderos, or traditional healers, who may offer visitors advice or even a swig of pox, depending on what ails them.
Pox (pronounced posh) is a liquor whose enduring popularity can be credited to the region’s strong Indigenous culture, specifically in the communities surrounding the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The Tzotzil, the local Maya ethnic group, have been making pox for centuries. It’s produced from a mixture of corn, wheat bran, and piloncillo, a sweetener made from boiled cane juice with a taste similar to brown sugar, which is molded into brown cones. (Piloncillo is also a main ingredient of the Mexican specialty cafe de olla.)
From this mixture, Indigenous distillers make a clear liquor with a distinctive sweet flavor, reminiscent of agricole rum and unaged bourbon. And, as Chiapans are proud to claim, this version of pox is even stronger than most mezcal—it tops out at around 60% alcohol. As the drink has grown in popularity, so too have syrupy varieties of the drink, flavored with fruits and herbs such as hibiscus, strawberries, and spearmint.
But it’s the ritual version that Maya healers claim can cure various ailments, especially when combined with garlic and honey. In fact, the word pox in the Tzotzil language means medicine. Traditional healers are able to continue their work because of the unique status of towns such as San Juan Chamula—after the 1994 Zapatista uprising that centered on the government’s neglect of Indigenous people, certain areas of the state became self-governing, retaining a syncretic form of Catholicism found nowhere else. It’s thanks to these people’s resilience that the local culture has survived despite the Spanish conquest and later efforts by the Mexican government to subsume it. This culture includes pox, the consumption of which was once banned by colonial authorities.
Until recently, pox remained a local secret, only available in plastic bottles from backyard stills. Anyone who wanted to experiment with Mexican liquor would go next door to Oaxaca, the headquarters of mezcal production. Chiapas—Mexico’s poorest state, and historically distinct from the Zapotec culture of Oaxaca—was off the map.
But now, pox is one of several examples of traditional distillations gaining wider popularity and acceptance. Around ten years ago, a few vanguard locals recognized the increasing interest in artisanal spirits across Mexico and decided to formalize the liquor’s production. The team at Poshería, on the main pedestrian street in San Cristóbal, was among the first to serve pox made in-house, in a wide variety of flavors. They now also sell bottles to take home and recently opened another branch in the Yucatán city of Mérida—another city influenced by a long history of Maya culture. Now, one can find pox at cocktail bars in Mexico City, Tulum, and even in the United States. Despite that, pox is only produced within the borders of the state of Chiapas, and the product retains its importance in Indigenous culture.
Pox makers start by loading the ingredients into a still, stirring the mixture every two hours for a day. Then, they cover it and let it ferment for at least a week. This first fermentation results in a low-alcohol drink called chicha. After that, it takes only one distillation to make pox, which comes out initially at around 36% alcohol. Another distillation can bring it into the realm of the ritual strength, between 50-60%.
Currently, there is only one brand available for export, called Siglo Cero, which is available for purchase online in the United States. That company started distilling and bottling their own pox in 2014, and it has since found entry onto cocktail menus in Dallas and Los Angeles. The same company has since started bottling another brand of pox, called Dondante, but it is currently only available within Mexico.
Pox can be an acquired taste. On the website Mezcal Reviews, one buyer writes, “I wanted to like this, because it sounded fun and weird. But then I tried it, and it was certainly weird and not too fun.” But others are more optimistic about pox’s weirdness in a liquor market already saturated by mezcal, whose popularity in the US is causing over-tourism and environmental damage in Oaxaca. Many locals in Chiapas are proud to share their local tipple, but also hope it does not get so popular as to lead to similar problems as the state next door.
In Mexico City, the acclaimed Fifty Mills makes a pox cocktail with Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, grapefruit, avocado leaves, lime juice, and hoja santa (sacred leaf) bitters. Meanwhile, Luvina Vegan Bar in the Narvarte neighborhood highlights pox alongside Mexican-made gin, mezcal, and pulque.
According to the Maya collection of stories and myths called the Popol Vuh, the gods made human flesh out of white and yellow corn; our arms and legs were molded out of masa. Humans and corn are one. Pox, then, is a way to connect with our history, present, and future. Just make sure to take it slow.