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This Uncommon Mayan Spirit Is Making Its Way Behind Bay Area Bars

Pox has been made and enjoyed in rural Mexico for thousands of years

Pox on a table.
Pox is a sleeper hit on Bay Area cocktail menus.
Dondante Pox
Paolo Bicchieri is a reporter at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, coffee and cafes, and pop-ups.

Foray is a relative newcomer to Carmel’s fine dining scene, opening in November 2022 on a sleepy corner that sat vacant for 15 years. The menu of dry-aged salmon and halibut and its modern yet unpretentious design make for a serene and delightful coastal dinner spot. But it’s Ivan Reyes, Foray’s bar director, who might leave a lasting impression on customers. He says the Mexican liquor pox (pronounced “posh”) — a complex, lighter cousin of mezcal — is the next big spirit. And, judging by how bar menus throughout Northern California seem to be picking it up, he may not be wrong.

Pox is a fermented combination of corn, sugar cane, bran, wheat, and myriad other ingredients depending on the producer. The indigenous Mexican spirit is common in religious and medicinal practices for Tzotzil Mayans in the highlands of Chiapas. Siglo Cero was formed in 2010 and according to the company was the first producer to gain access to United States markets in 2017, and the first company at all to truly bring the liquor out of the Mexican hinterlands and into the cities. The spirit is so new to the United States that the federal government isn’t clear on how to designate it: Is it medicine? Should it be considered a spirit like whiskey? There’s no denomination for it from the United States government, called instead a “specialty spirit.” Since it made it first to California in the late 2010s, though, the drink has later popped up on menus in Chicago and New York. Increasingly, it’s common in the Northern California dining scene.

That’s why it was a no-brainer for Reyes to introduce it to the diners on California’s coast. When Reyes was working at San Francisco margarita legend Tommy’s on Geary Boulevard, mostly selling mezcal and tequila, a distributor mentioned to him that pox could be a hit. He started digging further into the drink. By the time he joined the opening team at Foray, he knew pox was gaining further clout as an option for the blossoming fanbase of spicy and smokey mezcals and tequilas. “Nobody really knows about it,” Reyes says.

It’s nothing new to Julio and Arturo Palencia, brothers and business partners who import Siglo Cero and the newer Dondante Pox through their distribution business Mexa Brands. The brothers linked up with Siglo Cero in 2016 after Arturo started his first company, Mestizo Mezcal in the mid-aughts; even in 2007, Julio was telling his brother to keep an eye out for pox, then primarily only used by shamans and enjoyed in rural Mexico. Just like Reyes in San Francisco, Arturo says it wasn’t until someone offered him a bit of pox at a Mexico City bar that the potential for the spirit to take off dawned on him. It was a brand ambassador from Siglo Cero, and the brothers struck up a relationship with Isidoro Guindi, the company’s founder. Tahona Mercado, known for its extensive list of mezcal and tequila, carries pox, too. “We’ve seen exponential growth,” Arturo says. “But the industry, like the United States government, was confused. ‘What is this? It’s corn?’”

Mayans, proud of their Zapatista history, weren’t quick to share their liquor recipes with Siglo Cero. But by 2020 pox trickled into United States bars, including a few in Northern California. In Oakland, Colombian fusion restaurant Parche has a cocktail “in their pocket” for guests who request it, says Troy Bayless of Winebow, a wine and spirits distributor. Oakland’s Low Bar also featured pox in a drink from bartender Rami Rodriguez, the Drunk on the Moon, which starred Siglo Cero alongside whiskey, bitters Gran Classico and Bruto Americano, sweet vermouth, gomme syrup, and mole bitters. The Palencias had their minds blown when they saw pox on Low Bar’s Coachella cocktail list. Popoca, a “progressive Latin restaurant” in the East Bay, is working with Mexa Brands to get pox behind the bar, too.

A guy.
Making pox goes back thousands of years in Chiapas.
Mexa Brands

Bayless also points to a few San Francisco destinations for pox. The team at Last Rites keeps pox in their catalog of cane spirits, and Bayless says Nopa has an off-menu pox cocktail for the adventurous. The Luma Hotel’s Cavaña is tinkering with pox, too. Cala, now closed, was an early pox adopter in San Francisco, according to the Palencias, alongside K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco and Redwood City as early bottle shops.

The beverage is well-positioned for craft treatment, especially since most won’t get the chance to visit the San Juan Chamula church on a tour through Mexico. But, since there’s no tremendous pox production yet, Reyes says the future is wide open for pox-tasting menus and a deeper scene evolving. He enjoys sipping it, reveling in the aroma and beauty of the liquor. “It has to be made of Indigenous corn in Chiapas. It’s unique for sure,” Arturo says. “I wish pox could be considered by specific regions, like rum or cachaça in the future. That’d be awesome to see.”

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