Not Quite European Enough: A look at the molinillo and its exclusion from hybridization

The hybridization of chocolate in Europe was important in defining and distinguishing Old World chocolate from New World chocolate. New ingredients, such a sugar and cinnamon, along with new containers for chocolate are the foundation of this hybridization era. However, while these new ingredients and containers define hybridization, the molinillo, a type of wooden whisk introduced by Spanish colonists to froth chocolate, pictured below, is generally left out of this definition.

A traditional molinillo.

More so than simply being left out by historians, the molinillo is often incorrectly attributed to being part of the ancient Aztec or Maya process for preparing chocolate. While the molinillo fits a basic definition of hybridization as being a) related to chocolate and b) introduced by Europeans, the molinillo was likely rejected from the European idea of hybridization because it was heavily adopted not only in Europe but also in the New World. If this is the case, then the more formal definition of hybridization is a) relating to chocolate, b) introduced by Europeans, and c) exclusively used by Europeans.

Before the molinillo was introduced, the Aztec and Maya made chocolate by pouring the liquid from one vessel to another. Colonial dictionaries regarding the Mayan languages have words like yom cacao, meaning “chocolate foam”, or t’oh haa, meaning “to pour chocolate water from one vessel into another from a height” (Coe and Coe 48). Generally, the greater the height between the two vessels, the easier it was to raise the froth. The Aztec and Maya both believed that the froth was the most desirable part of the drink and put much effort into raising this froth. These ancient chocolate drinkers did have stirrers or spoons to help with chocolate production, but there is no mention of a tool with such a specific purpose as the molinillo (Coe and Coe 85). While the molinillo would have certainly been useful for the Aztec and Maya, it did not exist in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica.

It is unclear when exactly Spanish colonists introduced the molinillo. The idea that the molinillo was introduced during the 16th century stems from careful deductive reasoning. As explored, there is no indication that the molinillo existed during the time of Aztec or Maya. Similarly, no word for molinillo appears in the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary which was published in 1571; however, a report published in 1780 by Jesuit Francesco Saver Clavier on native Mexican life and history heavily cites the molinillo as a tool for chocolate production (Coe and Coe 85). In this same extensive report, there is no mention of the Aztec and Maya technique of pouring chocolate from one vessel to another. This suggests that sometime between 1571 and 1780, the molinillo was introduced and quickly replaced the traditional Aztec and Maya process for producing the chocolate froth. Given that this timing lines up well with the end of the Spanish Conquest, it is inferred, and widely accepted, that Spanish colonists introduced the molinillo in the 16th century.

Besides inventing the molinillo, Europeans created new containers for making and serving chocolate. As Europeans discovered, covering the pot of chocolate with a lid while using the molinillo could produce even more froth. This new invention required a hole in the middle of the lid for the essential molinillo (Coe and Coe 158). These new lids were generally made out of wood, but it later became customary to use a more elegant pot for table service with nobility (Presilla 32).  The introduction of the chocolatiére in France, shown below, was often made out of gold or silver and was able to hold the handle of the wooden molinillo (Coe and Coe 158). Unlike the molinillo, these pots are regarded as a part of hybridization, likely because they remained in Europe and were not heavily used in the New World.


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French chocolatiére, note the hole at the top for the molinillo.

Besides introducing the molinillo and creating containers, Europeans experimented with adding new ingredients. The most important of these new ingredients, sugar, was added to counteract the bitter taste of chocolate (Mintz 109). Making the chocolate sweet was thought to make chocolate more appealing to new consumers and contributed to chocolate’s quick rise to popularity in Europe (Mintz 109). Similarly, Europeans began to drink their chocolate hot, rather than cold like the Aztec. This was not new however, as the Maya, before the Aztec, had also taken their chocolate hot (Coe and Coe 115). Lastly, Europeans added spices not found in the New World, such as cinnamon, anise seed, and black pepper. This was not out of pure ingenuity, but rather because New World spices like chili pepper and “ear flower” were not readily accessible in Europe (Coe and Coe 115). In this sense, really the only new innovations Europeans provided were the addition of sugar and the molinillo. Everything else the Europeans introduced, like cinnamon and elegant chocolate containers, were variations on previous New World practices. Regardless of this, all the new ingredients and drinking vessels were included in the concept of hybridization while the molinillo was not.

Along with being left out of hybridization, the molinillo was actively disassociated from being a European invention. Often, the Aztec are shown as using the molinillo, which, as discussed, is false. For example, in the scene below from John Ogilby’s America, which displays the Aztec making chocolate, the man second to the right is shown using a molinillo (Coe and Coe 113).

Aztec men making chocolate, note the man second to the right is using a molinillo.

Similarly, in a drawing from Dufour’s 1685 treatise on coffee, tea, and chocolate, shown below, an Aztec man drinking chocolate mistakenly has a molinillo on the ground below him (Coe and Coe 165). These inaccuracies were likely not intentional and, instead, highlight the European assumption that because the molinillo was also used in the New World it was neither new nor European and, therefore, must have predated European contact with the New World.

Aztec man drinking chocolate, note the molinillo on the ground.

Europeans had no issue with taking New World chocolate back to Europe to be improved, but were unable to accept the idea that European inventions and practices, like the molinillo, could or would also be utilized in the New World. Instead of considering the molinillo as part of the European hybridization of chocolate, like cinnamon, sugar, and the chocolatiére, the molinillo was incorrectly casted as a pre-Conquest tool incorporated into European innovation. The contrast between the treatment by early historians towards the molinillo and towards other European chocolate technologies signals that hybridization is not simply defined as a chocolate related tool or innovation by Europeans. Instead, hybridization is outlined as a chocolate related tool or innovation made and used exclusively by Europeans.


Multimedia Sources





Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. 157.


Aztec men making chocolate:


Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Aztec men:


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

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