Updated on February 15, 2019
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.