A Guide to Mexican Moonshine

Where to sip modern versions of raicilla, xtabentún, pulque and damiana.

Nalguita Feliz, photo by Koral Center

Mexico’s drink scene might be best known for Kahlúa, tequila and mescal, but there are other local spirits that are still relatively unknown but equally rooted in cultural traditions. From artisanal raicilla to pulque, an ancient fermented beverage once enjoyed by the Aztecs, some of these under-the-radar drinks are making a comeback. Here are four modern twists on traditional spirits to try now.


Move over tequila and mescal, it’s time for raicilla (rye-see-ya), Mexico’s other agave spirit, to shine. Once reputed as a rustic version of mescal, premium raicilla is now being produced by upscale brands such as La Venenosa and artisanal distillers who carefully source wild-grown varieties of agave near coastal or mountain villages (like Mascota, Jalisco) and handcraft it to perfection.

Try it: Sample artisanal raicilla at Gaby’s Restaurant, a family-run resto-bar in Puerto Vallarta where the spirit is served in inventive ways. Opt for the Chile Pepino, a twist on the margarita, made with raicilla, triple sec, cucumber and just a hint of chili. 



This unique honey-anise liqueur is legendary throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Inspired by balche, a fermented bark and honey drink enjoyed by local Maya, this beloved product, distilled by Casa D’Aristi since 1935, is a golden elixir featuring honey drawn from the nectar of the Xtabentun flower by melipona (stingless) bees.

Try it: At Grand Velas Riviera Maya near Playa del Carmen, the Xtabentún cocktail showcases the liqueur’s subtle sweetness with a fusion of fresh pineapple, lime and soda. It’s best enjoyed at sunset from the resort’s rooftop Sky Bar.


The Xtabentún cocktail at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, photo courtesy of Velas Resorts


While mescal, tequila and raicilla are distilled spirits made from the heart of the agave plant, pulque is created from the plant’s sap, known as aguamiel (honeywater). This lightly fermented “drink of the gods” was a sacred beverage for Nahuatl priests and nobility during the Mesoamerican period. After a slump in popularity, it’s now back in the spotlight and can be found in pulquerias (taverns) across Mexico City. 

Try it: Join a Mexico City walking tour hosted by Culinary Backstreets for an insider’s look at Mercado Jamaica, one of the city’s oldest markets, and a visit to a traditional pulqueria, where pulque can be infused with fresh fruits.



Golden-hued Damiana liqueur is made from the leaves and stems of an aromatic shrub that grows wild in the desert. Legendary as a fertility tonic, it’s often sold in bottles shaped like an Incan goddess and is traditionally served as a shooter or in a margarita (the first margarita was made with Damiana liqueur). But this sweet herbal botanical is enjoying renewed popularity as a key ingredient in upscale cocktails across Baja California Sur. 

Try it: Chat with vendors and chefs while sipping a Nalguita Feliz, a refreshing cocktail with tequila, controy, agave honey, chile and Damiana at The Office Cantina in El Merkado, a food market in San Jose del Cabo.


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