Aguardiente: Colombian Fire Water

Brazil has its cachaça, Argentina has laid claim to Malbec, Peru and Chile are perpetually fighting over who has the “real” pisco, and we all know that Nicaragua and Cuba are the places to go for top-shelf rum. When it comes to cocktail hour, Colombia is often the forgotten stepchild, without a readily identifiable liquor to help define it on the world stage.

But just because Colombia hasn’t pioneered something with the popularity of the caipirinha or the pisco sour, that doesn’t mean this dance-crazy country doesn’t love its liquor. Does it ever. 

Aguardiente, or guaro as it’s more familiarly known, is the most popular liquor across most of Colombia, except for a few rum-favoring holdouts along the Caribbean coast.  This anise-flavored spirit, typically about 30% alcohol by volume and made from sugarcane, translates to “fire water,” though the sugar-heavy varieties taste more like melted licorice than anything fiery. It is the second-most-popular drink in Colombia after beer; the estimated per capita consumption of guaro is about 2.4 liters – enough to make the strongest salsa dancer lose his balance.

shot-guaro

A shot of guaro – photo courtesy of David Berkowitz

Each province in Colombia holds the rights to manufacture its own brand of guaro; though brands can be sold in other departments and some of the most popular varieties have a presence throughout the country, most residents prefer their local spirit. Some of the most widely-sold brands include Antioqueño (produced, as the name suggests, in the region around Medellín, and alone accounts for more than half of Colombia’s guaro sales), Néctar (Bogotá), Cristal (Manizales, in the coffee region), Blanco del Valle (Cali) and Doble Anís (Neiva, in the Huila province); there are also brands produced in the provinces of Nariño, Boyacá, Meta, Cauca, Tolima and Chocó. A few small, artisanal distillers have also jumped into the fray, but their wares are mostly exported or sold at high-end restaurants and bars, rather than in the friendly local tienda (corner store).

Aguardiente comes in two main varieties: con azúcar (with sugar) or sin azúcar (without). Guaro purists maintain that the first type is only for teenagers taking their first sips of liquor, while people who don’t enjoy brutal, daylong sugar hangovers are baffled that a sweeter version even exists, much less that people actually purchase and consume it. Many Colombians insist that the sugarless version doesn’t result in a hangover; though empirical evidence contradicts this statement, the sugarless version certainly has slightly less destructive aftereffects, with the added benefit of not tasting like an Easter basket.

Aguardiente-Antioqueno-sin-azucar

Aguardiente Antioqueno sin azucar – photo courtesy of Emmanuel Digiaro

Unlike some other types of liquor, guaro hardly ever appears in any form other than neat. There have been some efforts made, both in Colombia and abroad, where it’s more of an exotic flavor, to incorporate it into cocktails, but the idea hasn’t really taken off locally. It could be because the strong flavor makes mixing complicated, or simply because locals prefer to take their guaro the way they’ve always done: straight, out of a small plastic cup or right out of the bottle.

Though the liquor is a bit of an acquired taste (or a never-acquired taste, for those of us that would rather drink a cup of gasoline than anything anise-flavored), it’s a staple at any birthday party, night out or other cause for celebration. In fact, many Colombians have their own personal guaro shot glasses that hang around their necks, which serious partiers bring out for especially festive occasions. If you’re in Colombia for more than a day or two and plan to hit the town, you have to participate in the guaro rite of passage – just don’t expect it to come with any chasers. That’s not how they do things here.

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Comments (1)

One response to “Aguardiente: Colombian Fire Water”

  1. […] My family and I were living in SoCal. After having fled from the internal conflict as well as the infamous drug cartel activity that plagued Colombia in the ‘80s. I was a happy kid and had a great childhood. My life was everything I ever dreamed of until the night that I first tasted Aguardiente. […]

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