"Should I go first or should you?" asks a well-built 80-year-old man holding a ceramic jar filled with over half a liter of pulque, of his neighbor, a lady around ten years younger.
"The cat's head says: 'If you suck mine, I'll suck yours,'" she answers, and the rest of the bar's patrons start laughing uncontrollably.
"Look how mad that guy looks," says a man. He's pointing at me after noticing me laughing my ass off, a jar of pulque—that milky-white, agave-derived alcoholic beverage—in my hand.
And that's how we break the ice. My two friends and I hold up our jars to toast the elderly men that have welcomed us into their little gathering in this clandestine pulque house in Xochimilco town, south of Mexico City.
In this toreo—a popular name given to illicit pulque distilleries—you can find diehard connoisseurs of the boozy manguey juice. These patrons have been consuming it since birth and have known Doña Cande, the business owner, for almost 40 years, dating back to when she sold the drink out of buckets with her mom.
In the past, she's sold pulque illegally outside her house, which is strategically close to the Xolchimilco market, half a block away. She would take a giant wooden barrel filled with the white fermented liquid and fill any plastic bottles, jars, milk containers, and whatever other vessel people brought with them. On weekends, the neighbors would sit in plastic chairs and guzzle pulque on the street.
But a few years ago, some other neighbors started to complain. Several created a committee to make the authorities ban the selling of octli—as the drink is called in Nahualt, the native local language—on the streets. In that moment, Doña Cande transformed her own house in a pulque distillery.
Stepping into the distillery, it's hard to imagine that one of the most colorful speakeasies in Mexico lies behind the average-looking front door. Hidden behind street vendors that sell clothes, tools, and food, Doña Cande and another woman sell chapulines, beans, nopales, and other small things to nibble on while you get buzzed on her boozy product.
Slowly open the door and walk down the hallway towards the main patio, and you will find a vecindad, a small Mexican neighbor community sitting in plastic chairs with pulque jars in hand. Small magueys checker the patio, where the stench of the fermented beverage instantly hits you even though it's in an open space with lots of ventilation. The scent is a sign of fresh pulque.
The sweet pulque barrels are kept inside the house. Each has a fresh flavor with moderate sourness and a touch of honey sweetness. The regulars always order campechano: not too sweet, and not too strong. Its consistency is a bit sticky, indicating its pureness. There are other containers that keep the oat-cured pulque left to rest and they are never strained so that the oat flakes remain on the bottom. It has a taste of cinnamon and dulce de leche, thanks to the condensed milk on top.
As the truth serum sets in, everyone is busy doing their own thing: men over 50 tell each other anecdotes from when Xochimilco was a smaller town and a rural paradise. Women brag about how they told their idiot husbands to leave and then raised their children on their own. Those of us in our 20s and 30s quietly sit, sip, and listen to the elders tell stories. Pulque is so Mexican, and, at the same time, so archaic. When we, the younger patrons, drink it, we're defending it from an old and unfounded rumor that claims that people that make pulque use cow poop to accelerate its fermentation, a process named "la muñeca." After another sip, I call bullshit on this notion.
This vecindad has been here for over one hundred years. The walls are all cracked to the point where you can see the red brick and volcanic stones, which resemble archeological ruins. It is very dark inside the room. The only light source comes from a 60-watt light bulb in the main entrance, which is always open. There is no furniture, just a full-sized bed, and two closets by the wall. Anyone can come in and make himself comfortable on the squeaky bed or the plastic chairs. Like any good pulque maker, Doña Cande has an altar with the Vigin de Guadalupe, Saint Jude, and Saint Martin Caballero next to a small TV that's always on.
But what this sad-looking room lacks in appearance, it gains in friendly ambience. In here, everyone talks and gossips while they eat spiced peanuts with garlic and boiled beans. Some patrons even smuggle flasks of rum and hide themselves in here to share it: if any of Doña Cande's grandsons, the toreo guards, spot them, they will be expelled from the premises immediately.
After sitting around for hours and hours of drinking, you can buy chapulines from Doña Cande or go get a quesadilla from one of the street vendors to stave off hunger. But that doesn't happen often because the pulque is so good and the conversation is so great that there is no time for an appetite. And if you take the regulars advice and wisdom, this unwritten law will help you enjoy pulquerias anywhere to the fullest:
"If there is too much talking, and not enough drinking, the house loses and the babbling won't t get you drunk."