Chugging from a bottle of Colombian aquardiente

Despite being everywhere here in Colombia—on billboards, on tables of old men playing dominos, and in the hands of drunk tourists and locals alike—no one seems to know much about aguardiente, Colombia’s national drink.

We’re all too busy drinking it to care to ask.

But these nine facts about Colombian aguardiente are compelling enough to make you want to put your shot glass down for a second. Next round’s on me if at least one doesn’t surprise you.

Inflatable bottle of aguardiente on Medellin sidewalk
Aguardiente’s influence is all over the streets of Colombia.

1. Aguardiente is water-burning

The word aguardiente is a mash-up of the words agua, meaning water, and ardiente, meaning burning. So it’s the translation of the English term, firewater.

As for the other term Colombian aguardiente goes by, guaro (pronounced wa-row), that’s a derivation of the quechua word for sugar-water, warapu. Warapu is also the origin of the name for sugar can juice in Colombia and many other Latin American countries, guarapo.

2. Aguardiente is weaker than ever

Twenty years ago, most Colombian aguardiente was 40% alcohol. Now most is 29%.

There is suspiciously little information about why this has happened. Aguardiente manufacturers say it’s to make it more appealing internationally. This is hard to believe seeing as most every other liquor hovers around 40% alcohol.

Could it be perhaps that water is a cheaper ingredient than alcohol? Or maybe it’s somehow related to the fact that in Colombia the consumption tax on liquors with more than 35% alcohol was significantly higher than for those with less than 35% alcohol?

This last point was only rectified in 2017 after the EU filed a dispute to the WTO that these taxes were illegally discriminatory.

3. Aguardiente consumption levels are on the decline

Over the past 25 years, consumption of domestic liquors in Colombia has decreased by 56%. This is mostly attributed to increased competition from international spirits makers.

The year 2015 was particularly bad for some manufacturers such as Aguardiente Antioqueño, the country’s top producer, which saw sales drop by 33%.

Supermarket shelf full of aguardiente
Aguardiente dominates supermarket shelves here in Medellin, but less and less people are buying it.

4. Drinking aguardiente is good for your others’ health

Salud, which is how to say cheers in Spanish, means health in English. And here in Colombia, saying “Salud!” is literally more true than you may think.

Each state in Colombia (or department, as they’re called) has its own monopoly on liquor production and distribution. They rely heavily on profits from their booze business to finance public health care.

5. Aguardiente is different across Colombia

Because every Colombian state has its own monopoly on liquor production and distribution, it can be nearly impossible to find aguardiente brands from other parts of the country than the one you are in.

In fact, if you bring a bottle of Nectar aguardiente from Bogotá to Medellín you risk in being confiscated from you for being contraband.

This variety across departments is decreasing, however. Due to declines in sales, only six of the nineteen original state-run liquor manufacturers remain, so there is more cross-state-border trade than ever.

6. Aguardiente isn’t very Colombian

Colombian aguardiente as just four ingredients: alcohol, sugar, anise, and water. Only one of them, water, comes from Colombia. The pure alcohol is imported from Ecuador and Bolivia, sugar from Central America, and the natural anise flavoring from Spain.

map of where aguardiente ingredients come from
Part of an excellent infographic by Don Juan magazine, which shows that none aguardiente’s ingredients are Colombian.

7. Aguardiente is basically alcoholic Kool-Aid

Aguardiente doesn’t have the complex tastes or compounds that get better with age that other alcohols like rum and whiskey have.

Unless other ingredients are added, like saffron in aguardiente amarillo for example, all that separates one Colombian aguardiente from the other is how much sugar and anise is added.

In other words, aguardiente is basically an alcoholic version Kool-Aid. That’s why there’s no such thing as an aguardiente connoisseur.

8. Sugar-free aguardiente isn’t any better for you

All the “sín azúcar” labelling is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

According to lab analyses commissioned by Colombian newspaper, El Espectador, 100 mL of regular Aguardiente Antioqueño, “tapa roja,” has 167.3 calories. By comparison 100 mL of sugar-free “tapa azul” has 166.5 calories. That’s a whopping difference of 0.8 calories total in three shots worth of guaro.

The reality is Aguardiente Antioqueño’s normal “sugar-full” variety only has 1.6 calories of sugar per 100 mL. It’s basically sugar-free.

Side by side of red and blue cap aguardiente Antioqueño
Sugar-free aguardiente in blue, and practically sugar-free aguardiente in red. There’s no nutritional difference.

9. The best-tasting Colombian aguardiente is…

To determine if any Colombian aguardiente is better than the others, we assembled seven different brands and did a blind taste test. We also threw in the French anise-flavored liquor, pastis, to see if our tasters could tell the difference.

Click here to see which was the best aguardiente.

Table of people tasting Colombian aguardientes
Our taste test to find the best Colombian aguardiente was a serious, formal affair.


    1. This question made me smile. Thanks. And I empathize. Sometimes you take the lid off, turn the bottle upside down, and nothing comes out. You just have to hit the bottom of the bottle hard a couple of times when holding it upside down.

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