An Ancient Drink Enters the 21st Century

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Mexico City’s Tlecān reimagines tascalate—a Maya drink made with maíz, cacao, achiote and water—as a bright and earthy mezcal cocktail.

Tlecān, a minuscule mezcalería in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, is named after the Náhuatl word meaning “place of fire,” and it lives up to its name the moment you step inside. 

A reddish-brown glow illuminates the space; smoke swirls under the dark and moody lighting. The air is thick and smells of an earthy resin. Along the back wall stands a replica of the disc of death, an iconic Aztec sculpture depicting Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death. It’s one of the bar’s many tributes to pre-Hispanic Mexican culture.

“Everything is designed so that whoever is Mexican feels proud to be Mexican, and whoever isn’t is impressed and wants to be Mexican,” says Eli Martinez Bello, co-owner of the bar. The bartender led the beverage program at Pujol, a revered culinary destination, for five years before transitioning to her current role. 

Tlecān specializes in mezcal, offering 13 options from small-batch makers across the country who do not export their products outside of Mexico. At the bar, you can order any of the spirits neat, or enjoy them in a number of cocktails that take inspiration from centuries-old, pre-Hispanic drinks like tascalate. 

Tascalate is more than 3,000 years old and originates from the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. It played a role in the ancient Maya city-state of Palenque, where greeting the king involved bowing, then drinking a full cup of tascalate as a sign of gratitude; leaving behind any liquid was considered disrespectful. Today, the drink is still primarily found in Chiapas. 

“It’s a very simple and basic refreshment,” says Bernardo Serna, a partner of the mezcalería, “but that’s exactly why tascalate has lasted so long. Long before refrigeration began, people ground maíz, achiote and cacao into powder and preserved it. They survived winters by consuming this highly nourishing liquid.” 


The drink itself is simple, made of pulverized toasted dry maíz (or corn), cacao and achiote (small, red, kernel-like seeds), blended with water—its name comes from the Náhuatl words “tlaxcalli” (tortilla) and “atl” (water). The maíz lends the drink a thick texture and mineral taste, while cacao brings bitter and sweet notes followed by the subtle heat of achiote. Everything is toasted before being ground down into a fine powder. Water is then carefully added to bring the tascalate to life. 

At Tlecān, the drink follows a similar basic format. “We could have made these ingredients in-house at Tlecān, but instead we want to support local artisans whenever we can, so we purchase these handmade products in Chiapas,” adds Serna. In Chiapas, depending on the season, the drink is served piping hot or ice-cold and it’s now sometimes made with milk. But at the Mexico City bar, where it takes the form of a sour, it’s always chilled and made with water. 

“Tlecān uses the tascalate to pay homage to all maíz drinks such as atole, tejate and champurrado—thick, cereal-like beverages that get their density from one of the oldest food ingredients in Mexican culture: maíz,” says Serna. The bar team found that tascalate’s unique texture was best suited to the sour template, made here with a base of mezcal complemented by egg white, agave nectar and lemon. “We use small-batch suppliers, so it’s possible the mezcal in the drink can change due to availability,” says Serna, “but the cocktail will always use a mezcal that’s earthy and a little acidic to bring out the flavor notes of the tascalate.” 

The end result is a brick red cocktail topped off with a thick egg white foam. Despite its bold color, the Tascalate Sour tastes light, bright and earthy. It’s served in a coupe and finished with a dusting of fermented cacao powder. 

“We’re working to tell the story of many generations of Mexicans and the history behind some of these traditional beverages,” says Martinez Bello, who serves her drinks alongside a modest food menu of street food staples, like the pambacito, a take on pambazo, a chunky bread roll dipped in salsa and stuffed with chorizo, mashed potatoes and Chihuahua cheese. Other cocktail highlights include the Todas Las Flores, a take on tepache that’s prepared with guanábana (soursop) and lavender; the Pulque Colada, where pulque, a boozy fermented brew made from agave sap and referred to as “the drink of the Gods,” arrives fresh from the Mexican state of Hidalgo and serves as the base; and the Ocelóyotl, which incorporates Veracruz’s traditional carajillo, a sweet coffee drink, in its build. 

On Instagram, Tlecān has nearly 25,000 followers, but it follows only four accounts—all cultural institutions. It’s a nod to the bar’s design, which is made to mimic a museum gallery; the Aztec statue replicates one at Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología. It’s the bar’s way of saying, “If you love us, go learn more about us, our culture,” says Serna. 

For the bar team, Tlecān is a sacred space to pay tribute to pre-Hispanic traditions through gourmet drinks and dishes that are emblematic of Mexico. It’s an invitation for guests, Mexican and non-Mexican alike, to delve into the extensive history and rich culture of the country.

“I got into mixology to tell stories,” Martinez Bello adds. “Then I realized, there’s so much that’s already happened, things we can’t forget. So rather than inventing new [stories], I made this about going deep into Mexico’s history and culture, and bringing it to people here and now through drinks.”

Elizabeth Quan Kiu V. helped translate and fact-check this piece. She is a Spanish-language journalist, translator and educator. Born and raised in Mexico City, Elizabeth immigrated to Chicago in the 1990s. She’s fluent in English and resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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