Tough to Swallow
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.
Is sugar-free aguardiente healthier?
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.
What does “aguardiente” mean?
A mash-up of the words agua, meaning water, and ardiente, meaning burning, aguardiente is direct translation of the English term, firewater (or vice-versa).
Colombian aguardiente also goes by, guaro. Guaro is 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.
Why is aguardiente only 29% alcohol?
Twenty years ago, most Colombian aguardiente was 40% alcohol. Now most is only 29%.
There is suspiciously little information.
Aguardiente manufacturers say it’s to make it more appealing internationally. That’s 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.
But Colombian aguardiente makers have still yet to rectify their watered-down manufacturing since then.
How popular is aguardiente in Colombia?
Popular, but less so every year.
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%.
Is drinking aguardiente good for you?
…but it might actually be good for others!
Each Colombian state (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.
So when you cheers your shot of aguardiente and say “Salud!” (which means “health” in Spanish), you’re actually meaning it!
Why are the aguardiente brands different depending on where I go in 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 it 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.
What is aguardiente made of?
Colombian aguardiente is made from just four ingredients: alcohol, sugar, anise, and water.
More interesting is in this report from El Tiempo’s magazine, Don Juan:
Only one of those ingredients, water, comes from Colombia.
The pure alcohol is imported from Ecuador and Bolivia, sugar from Central America, and the natural anise flavoring from Spain.
So yeah, it’s not really that Colombian.
Why isn’t Colombian aguardiente more popular internationally?
Because Colombian aguardiente is basically alcoholic Kool-Aid.
It doesn’t have complex tastes or compounds that get better with age like other alcohols like rum and whiskey. This means that 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.
That’s why there’s no such thing as an aguardiente connoisseur and most people around the world prefer to drink other alcohols.
Which is the best Colombian aguardiente?
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.
67 thoughts on “Colombian Aguardiente: 9 Surprising Facts About this Infamous Liquor”
HOW DO OPEN THE BOTTLE????????
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.
100% correct Chris! There is also a quick ‘jerk’ shaking action you can make that does the trick. Most Colombians do exactly as you stated in your reply above. Salud gente!! Disfruta.
crhis this comment made me smile too haha we have so much in common chris :0
Oh my gosh thank you. I was messing with this thing for ages to see if there was some thing I haven’t removed.
does Aguardiente go ‘bad?’
I’ve had a bottle for almost 50 years. It’s not the first go-to bottle in the liquor cabinet 🙂
Haha! It’s just sugar, (hopefully sterilized) water, and alcohol so there’s no reason it should’ve gone bad. It won’t taste any better either though. If you find a nice red wine back there too, I’m interested!
Of course it’s sterilized
Yeah. I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote, “(hopefully sterilized).”
I have traveled to Colombia 5 times and immersed myself in the culture. I was told by more than one local that if you drink aguardiente and eat watermelon it is poisonous. I laughed at this notion but when you ask a Colombian, they swear its true. What would make them say that?
Interesting. I did some quick internet sleuthing in Spanish and found the myth may come from the church: Watermelon is a slight aphrodisiac (more news to me!), so combining it with the inhibition effect of alcohol creates a dangerous cocktail for the church they wanted to nip in the bud. Now, maybe that explanation’s a myth, too, but like the watermelon + aguardente = death, it’s a fun story. Thanks for sharing, Ken
death = aguardente that is super relatable and funny haha hi chris
Better off just drinking a cheap bottle of Yukon Jack. No wonder why everyone over there drinks beer. They don’t know how to make rum and they don’t know how to make spirits.
No wonder why everyone thinks gringos are annoying af.
I love you for that comment alone 🙂
Gringos can’t handle aguardiente.
Funny, because most gringos think Colombian “males” are exceedingly annoying.
@morete: I’m Colombian myself, and you speak the truth.
I agree 100 percent. They make some awesom food and the culinary life here is delightful. But aguardiente just isn’t worth drinking. Pretty much anything is better.
Lol I completely agree. Colombians dont really know how to do much of anything except lie.
Being nasty to oters just shows you must have a horribe lie. I really hope it gets better so you can love yourself and all people of Earth, especially nice honest Columbians. Make sure you keep your mask on won’t you……
Were you serious when you wrote that you can flip the bottle upside down and nothing comes out? Why is that?
Totally serious, and I really don’t know why it happens. We’ve come across the same with the rum bottles in other Latin American countries, too.
They put a plastic piece on the mouth of the bottle to avoid scammers put fake aguardiente inside the bottles again. That piece makes it a little bit harder to serve at the first time. This kind of fake Guaro is dangerous and people might get health problems after consuming it. When you go to Colombia make sure you buy Aguardiente in well-known liquor stores and supermarkets. About your testing, next time play some Vallenatos or Reggaeton in the background. I assure you it will taste better and you are going to have a great time. I don’t want to talk about the hangover though;)
Haha, good point about the music, Federico. Noted!
Chris I just think that you are full of it..
and I don’t think you have been down here really..
come down and I will be more than willing to take you on a tour of the different distilleries, so you can get your “facts” straight..
You’re probably right (about me being full of it). Though I stand by what I wrote here until given facts that prove otherwise. Or until I get to go on a tour with you! Thanks for the invite. Salud!
You are saying that aguardiente is made by combining pure imported alcohol with imported sugar and water. That makes no sense to me. It just doesn’t add up. Most of the Aguardiente sold is sugarfree, so cross-out the sugar. Plus why would you create a spirit by just buying pure alcohol and adding water and sugar? Colombia grows plenty of sugar cane in the Valle region and has a healthy profitable sugar industry, and I suspect it would be much cheaper to just distill the sugarcane juice or mash than to make the concoction that you suggest. Importing alcohol into Colombia involves significant taxes. Unless you can back it up with facts, please don’t make those kind of statements that appear to be inaccurate.
Hey Jim. You’re right about the sugar. I wrote that in this post, too, in the point that sin azucar aguardiente is no different than con azucar. The graphic in this post refers to the sugar used to create the alcohol. I lost most of my research notes and was stupid not to mention them here. This Don Juan magazine article corroborates the info I shared above.
I’m Colombian, and I can tell you first, guaro is not pronounced warow that’ll just make you look stupid, is pronounced as it looks. Second, it is absolutely the most popular drink here, third, the reason for it to have a low alcohol percentage is because it also has sugar and they don’t want you to have an alcohol poisoning. Fourth, stop thinking it is not sterilized, it is not like we’re caveman who don’t know how to do things. This article is pure bs, don’t believe in it.
Hi Salomé. Thanks for pointing out the pronunciation of guaro. You’re right; I’m wrong. I’ll fix that now.
If you have any studies countering the reports I linked to on aguardiente’s popularity and why the alcohol level is so low, please share and I’ll update the post accordingly.
Hi Salome, grow a pair. This guy wrote a simple article about aguardiente. Get a life.
I am also Colombian, well, kinda. Either way, he is explaining the roots of where the word comes from – maybe you are the one that sound silly here. Aguardiente is awful bro, the only way you can sort of tolerate it is with very cold bottle. Have you seen anyone drunk from aguardiente not get into a fight? How else do you make alcohol without without sugar? Let me guess you also buy “Organic” aguardiente? Labels are a scam – Colombians might not be cavemen, but you sure behave like one when you drink that crap, get insulted by nothing and fire up your guns in the sky to proof “how macho” you are. His research is on point, criticize all you want. Guaro sucks.
Right on, Salome! My wife is Colombian and when I visit Bogota from Australia mi familia Colombiana keeps me plied with Aguardiente. I love it and usually drink it with a beer chaser. Salud!
If I was you, I’d be more careful with the wording, Colombians take offence very easily and the way your article is paraphrased, sounds mean and almost like making fun of what they consider one of their national symbols.
That won’t go down well. little bit more careful next time
Hi Andrea. Thanks for the advice. It seems to me that people all over the world seem to take offense easily, especially online.
I understand why anyone who loves aguardiente may not be happy to learn what I shared. If they have facts to counter the facts I shared (not opinions), I’ll gladly update the post.
Woah. This sounds like a thread, just exactly how you said “Colombians” would behave. It is not insulting – I am Colombian and totally agree with Chris. Aguardiente is horrible, it could be its “National Drink” but there’s nothing original to it. It’s like saying that Morcilla or Ajiaco is Colombian, they aren’t, those dishes come from European influence, the only dishes we had as Natives was mostly corn. The accordion ain’t Colombian either, hope you know that.
You should try this new Aguardiente that my wife found at store in North Miami Beach. Its spelled Cumbé.
The bottle looks a lot nicer than all of the traditional ones, and we thought it tasted a lot smoother! It also says on the back that all of their ingredients are Colombian.
Yeah, I’d definitely be keen to try an aguardiente blind taste test with this Cumbé stuff next time. Thanks for sharing, Jake!
Chris, great article regardless of what some say. There will always be negative nancies out there.
My wife is from Bogotá and has been In Canada for 6 years now. We always have Guaro in the spirits cabinet and an assortment of Mezcal, tequilas grandfather.
What I can tell you is having been with my wife (Liliana) for 5 years, I have learned in Colombian culture is they are very very sensitive about it as a whole, language mostly; from spelling, pronunciation to sentences. I often have to use my amigo google to find a/the word or words and most often google gives a Mexican version of what am looking for. She’s quick to advise me she is NOT Mexican and the word combination or spelling is unacceptable.
Salud Amigo! Dios bendiga!
Haha, thanks for the helpful up-close-and-personal first-hand perspective from a fellow Canadian, Ryan.
I’m with you on the challenges of Spanish. It’s not a hard language to learn compared to others, but the fact that every country has different words for so many things makes it tricky. Even more so, I suppose, when you have an extra nationalistic and particular wife! Enjoy the aguardiente. I’ve been enjoying some recently with orange bitters, soda, and lime. Try it out (if your wife allows) and see what you think.
I first tasted guaro in’85 in the Aures neighborhood. I volunteered nearby at Don Bosco. The guaro of today “for export” is not the same. I have fond memories of my 2 yrs in Colombia. Guaro is more of a social experience until you wake up on the curb in Guyaquil the next afternoon. I never did but saw people who did. The lower alcohol content of guaro today may have its benefits.
Haha, thanks Jota for the comment. Maybe aguardiente doesn’t get better with age, but I’d pay a fair chunk of change to get my hands on one of those ’85 bottles.
I’ve visited Colombia many times to see my girlfriend (at the time) and on many occasions for the weekend, aguardiente seems to be the primer of choice on the way to going out. It appealed to me so had to buy a bottle to take back to UK. It’s very similar to the Greek ouzo
Cool. If you go back or still have some aguardiente left, I suggest you do a blind taste test. Our experience aguardiente tastes similar only to the extent that it’s anise-flavored. French pastis, for example, is much stronger and richer. Give it a try and let us know1
what I see here is an article with a scientific approach (always basing life on science, and that paradigm will soon be broken too), by someone who apparently had a bad experience with that liquor … it would be more interesting to describe which It is the cultural representation of that liquor in countries like Colombia and because so much was drunk, that (from my point of view) would be more interesting.
The most curious thing is someone non-native speaking about something very native … I would say that each one to their own affairs or at least fully inform themselves so as not to make an article so flat and empty
Good points, Josph. My only push-back would be to ask how much of aguardiente is true culture and how much or that “culture,” and the resulting product, is bastardized and twisted by marketing and protectionism.
Chris, I’m curious to see your source for writting the below:
“The pure alcohol is imported from Ecuador and Bolivia, sugar from Central America, and the natural anise flavoring from Spain.”
It does not sound right; We have plenty of sugar cane to make the alcohol as we actually do not only for spirits but for fuel too. I’ve seen your replies asking people for facts or sources that counter your article, I would like to know where your sources are coming from.
Hi Elcoco. I got that info from this article.
Hello Chris and Kim, the next time you are in Colombia you should visit the sugar cane plantations in the regions (departments) of Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Risaralda. It is really beautiful! There are more than 241,205 hectares planted in sugar cane. Sugar cane that is used to make the Colombian Aguardiente.
There are more than 2,750 sugar cane growers and also 13 large sugar mills companies ( that grow and process sugar cane) in Colombia.
Thanks Margarita. We’d love to visit. Do you have any more information on these plantations and which aguardiente brands buy from them?
Chris, where do i begin. PLease come over i have alcohol, would love to share!1! Mine isn’t old like stupid Suzanne’s 😉
All right! Thanks, Jimy. Tengo sed.
I love you Chris!
I found this article interesting and informative…but tbh the way I got here was through Google. Why? I’d never heard of aguardiente until early this morning, while re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel Blood Meridian. One of the characters was nursing a mescal hangover with aguardiente. And I hit up Google to find out what the stuff was, and suddenly I’m here..! I love the internet for these happy accidents. Thanks!
I love aguardiente. And I like that it is watered down actually. for practical reasons. I have never been to Colombia but in Queens a 750L bottle of tapa Azul is like $80 in a club (the cheapest alcohol) and you can take shots of that all night and get tipsy but not drunk. My husband and I will even go out to a bar just the two of us and we will split a bottle and it comes with lemon water and fruit salad and we can nearly finish the whole thing. I used to go to dinner and split a half-bottle with my friend. You can’t do that with other liquore At parties, someone will go around and pour it directly in your mouth too, and again I would never do that with tequila or rum lmao! And I never get hungover with guaro, maybe because it’s softer and you tend to drink water with it? The problem is after getting used to drinking aguardiente, you have to be careful taking shots of other liquor because you’re not used to the high alcohol content! I hope to go to Colombia soon and try other brands besides Antioqueño, even if they do taste exactly the same
Even better, bottles of aguardiente are much cheaper than $80 a bottle in Colombia!
I just tasted an American version of aguardiente called Chacho. It’s infused with jalapeños instead of anise. 35% ABV. It was very good.
So many points in the article don’t really add up, especially after spending some time in in Colombia. This is one of the first things that come up in Google for Aguardiente so spreading misinformation is not cool.
Various brands from different departments are sold in supermarkets in every state. Why would it get confiscated? It doesn’t make sense.
Sugarcane is huge here. Why would it be imported from somewhere else? The reason food and drink see cheaper here is because it’s domestic product.
Why would they import and add alcohol? That’s not how spirits works. They are fermented and distilled.
You linked to the 40% thing but then embellished about the reasons manufacturers gave with no source. And also gave no source about the taxation thing.
You claim that Amarillo is yellow because they add saffron. Again, where the hell did you get that fact because I don’t see it published anywhere.
It’s just ridiculous that you, as a foreigner, wrote this negatively biased article that reads like you made half of it up because these “facts” don’t exist anywhere else and some of the sources you gave are questionable websites. If you don’t like it that’s fine but delete the misinformation please.
All fair points! My journalism levels couldn’t be worse if I’d downed a bottle of aguardiente. Believe it or not, everything I wrote came from articles written by better journalists than me (which isn’t saying much). I have nothing against aguardiente. I got curious about aguardiente years ago when I wrote this, googled around, and found all sorts of surprising information I thought was super interesting and decided to share on my then very little blog. The report on the ingredients and how it’s alcohol with water added is no longer online, but I managed to find and re-add the WebArchive link.