Mexican Whiskey Is on the Rise, Powered by Ancient Corn

Of the 59 varieties of native corn in Mexico, nal t’eel is one of the oldest, having emerged in the Yucatán Peninsula some 4,000 years ago. It grows quickly, largely unbothered by heavy rains or drought — so robust that the Mayans called it “rooster corn.”

Like almost all of Mexico’s indigenous corn varieties, nal t’eel in recent decades has faced a seemingly unbeatable threat: high-yield hybrids, developed primarily in the United States and favored for their efficiency, though rarely their flavor. Fields once dotted with a rainbow of heirloom ears are now awash in wan yellows and whites.

But in 2020 nal t’eel was thrown a lifeline of sorts by Gran Maizal, a distillery outside the Yucatán city of Merida. Working with local farmers, the company uses nal t’eel and two other indigenous varieties of corn to make whiskey.

There are now more than a dozen distilleries across Mexico making whiskey, most of them using corn native to their region. About half of them export, or are preparing to export, to the United States, among them Abasolo, Sierra Norte and Maíz Nation. (Because the category is so new and still quite small, there are no sales figures available.)

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