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Real sugar and tropical flavors give Mexican sodas their refreshing powers

Photo: Donato Sardella/Getty Images
Photo: Donato Sardella/Getty Images

Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The A.V. Club offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.

Mexican sodas

The lowdown: The original soft drinks of Mexico were aguas frescas (“fresh waters”), popularized when Aztec farmers mashed fresh fruit into water to refresh themselves on long journeys. These non-alcoholic drinks—flavored with flowers, grains, fruits, and seeds native to Mexico—are every bit as popular today, sloshing in translucent containers at taquerias stands.

But Mexicans today have taken to a popular American tradition: carbonated sodas (a genre of beverages that has reverse migrated, in recent years, back into United States—just ask your friendly neighborhood hipster restaurant for a Mexican Coke). While usual suspects Coca-Cola and 7 Up are mainstays in Mexican beverage culture, sodas south of the border have their own unique quirks and singular traits, drawing tropical inspiration from traditional drinks served in Mexico for millennia.

The taste: Mexican culinary tradition places a greater emphasis on the use of unrefined sugar; cane syrup is boiled down and poured into molds shaped like cones and flat round cakes, then sold as panela, piloncillo, or panocha. Allowing molasses and trace elements to remain in the sugar gives a deeper, caramelized complexity to dishes like flan; try to spot these same flavors in Mexican soda, which often use real cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.

Tropical fruits, by virtue of their abundance, play a greater role in Mexican soft drinks. Pineapple and mango are two favorites. Guava is particularly popular, used in the irresistibly bubblegum-colored Jarritos guava soda. Despite its shocking pink, guava is a subtle fruit with similarities to persimmon and a flavor more floral than acidic or sweet.

Possible gateway: Why not begin with Mexican versions of the classics? Check the label of imported glass bottles of Coca-Cola, Squirt, and Sprite to make sure you’re getting the “hecho en Mexico” version with real cane sugar, which rounds off Coke’s usual metallic sharp bite with caramel warmth.

From there, you can explore flavors that you won’t find at your local burger joint’s fountain. Jamaica soda, widely available in both glass and plastic bottles from Jarritos, is made from hibiscus flower; the deep red pigment comes from anthocyanin, a flavor molecule that contributes to the slightly astringent flavor and faint notes of over-steeped black tea. This flavor is notable for being one of the closest to a traditional agua de jamaica, which is tart, slightly syrupy, and sure to stain your white T-shirt if you dare to spill it. The carbonated version rounds off some of the mouth-puckering effect with effervescence and the magic of artificial flavoring.

Tamarind is a popular flavor globally, surfacing in Southeast Asian chutneys and Middle Eastern stews; the sticky brown fruit contained in its leathery pod is used to flavor Latin America candies as well as sodas, becoming less tart and more fruity when mixed with sugar. Jarritos tamarind soda is more complex and earthy than most American sodas, rich with notes of pomegranate molasses and dried fruit, and evocative of memories of diving under piñatas to snatch at tamarind pulp candies.

Next steps: The U.S. Hispanic population is rapidly growing, gaining buying power at a pace faster than the general population and outspending other households on trips to the grocery store. As a result, many supermarkets now carry a wide variety of Latin American products. But the limited shelf space is often reserved for major brands, and you’re unlikely to find rare delights such as Champagne cola, a caramel-colored cream soda that found its way to Mexico via the Caribbean Islands. If your area hosts businesses that cater to Latino customers (such as a mercado), the chilled cases within will likely contain more exotic beverages.

Peñafiel makes a number of soft drinks; the most popular is the Limónada, a mineral water based limeade with a delightful effervescence and a strong artificial citrus flavor reminiscent of powdered lemon-flavored drinks like Country Time.

PepsiCo’s Manzanita Sol line focuses on distinctly Mexican flavors, with a flagship soda that contributes to the fact that apple is the second most popular soft drink flavor in Mexico. Sidral Mundet is another popular apple soda brand; its Manzana Verde variety boasts a crisp, tart green apple flavor.

Mexican culture has a long history of fermented drinks. Pulque, a cloudy beer-like beverage, feeds lactobacillus yeast on sugars from a wide variety of fruits and plants. While a pulqueria in Mexico City might flavor its concoctions with passion fruit or watermelon, the most popular recipe is based on the same maguey plant that gives us mezcal and tequila.

Bottled pulque exists in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, but the Mexican infatuation with fermented flavors doesn’t stop there—even if they won’t get you tipsy. Tepachito is a fruity and fizzy cider based on the traditional recipe for tepache, a pineapple-cinnamon drink brewed in barrels.

Also rich with the taste of brown sugar is Malta, a carbonated beverage brewed from barley and hops—just like beer, but without the booze. Malta Goya is the most ubiquitous umbrella brand. The large product line includes Clásica Malta Goya, which is made with real cane sugar; try it with a slug of condensed milk, cream, or non-dairy milk for a frothy sweet creamy drink that tastes similar to a stout float.

For those who prefer wine to beer, Sangria Señorial is a sparkling non-alcoholic sangria with an authentic whiff of heady wine in the nose. Try soaking cut fruit in Sangria Señorial and serving over ice to accommodate non-alcoholic-drinkers at a summer barbecue.

Talk like an expert: “Dame cuatro tacos de cabeza con cilantro y cebolla y un jarrito de tamarindo y otro de mandarín pa’ tomar.” (“Give me four cabeza tacos with cilantro and onion, and a tamarind jarrito and another mandarin one to drink.”)