If you’re about to head to Colombia, you might have been doing your research online and noticed something called “aguardiente”. So what is aguardiente? It’s typically regarded as the national liquor of Colombia.
In this article, we’re taking a look at what aguardiente is made from, the history behind this local firewater, different types of aguardiente you can find in Colombia, and a popular, simple cocktail recipe you can make at your Airbnb or hotel after a hard day exploring Plaza Botero, Comuna 13, Guatape, or getting your work done at one of Medellin’s awesome coworking spaces.
What Is Aguardiente?
Aguardiente is the national alcohol of Colombia. It’s a popular drink both in its home country and in other Latin American countries. I first tried a small shot of this liquor in Costa Rica, just before I left to go to Medellin.
Colombian Aguardiente is a clear alcohol that’s typically enjoyed served straight as a shot, either warm or cold. It’s a little similar to Turkish raki, French pastis, Greek ouzo, and Italian sambuca.
We noticed most of the locals paired their shots of aguardiente with a chilled beer. While it’s typically enjoyed by itself, you can also substitute aguardiente for other alcohols and make some pretty tasty cocktails with it.
But despite seeing this alcohol literally everywhere in Colombia, from corner stores, to supermarkets, to street bars and billboard – it’s still not a popular global drink such as perennial favorites tequila or vodka.
What Does Aguardiente Mean?
The name “aguardiente” roughly translates to “firewater” in English – which is pretty accurate!
It’s a combination of the word agua (Spanish for water) and ardiente (which means “burning”). So there won’t be any surprises when you try your first sip.
In Colombia, you might also hear this liquor referred to as “guaro”. Guaro is one of the popular alcohols in Costa Rica, but it is definitely not the same as aguardiente, so don’t get them confused. Guaro (or guarapo) is simply the native Quechua term for “sugar water” or sugar cane juice.
Aguardiente has a licorice flavor that is smooth, and less sweet than many other alcohols – despite its sugar base.
The History Of Aguardiente
Aguardiente is thought to have been made by the native Quechua Indian people, who were fond of a sugary, alcoholic drink they called “guarapo”. Colombia can get pretty cold – so this would have been a pretty good beverage to help them stay warm during the chilly months.
When the Spanish arrived in Colombia, they discovered this drink and adapated it into what we know as aguardiente today – this is much like what they did when they arrived in Mexico and discovered tequila, only aguardiente has never been as popular.
Aguardiente was brought to the USA by Cumbe, which is an alcohol company named after a 1940s Colombian dance. The founder of this company joined forces with Fernando Botero, who was a master distiller with a major Colombian alcohol manufacturing company.
Botero is mostly known for his Guinness World Record for hosting the world’s biggest aguardiente tasting party.
What Is Colombian Aguardiente Made Of?
Aguardiente is traditionally made from alcohol, sugar, anise, and water. As per manufacturing regulations, the sugar cane in the drink must have firstly been used for the production of sugar.
The alcohol part of aguardiente might come from honey, yeast, sugar, water, and other carefully selected ingredients, but this varies between brands.
The “Liquors & Spirits Factory of Antioquia” creates top shelf spirits, and it Aguardiente Real 1943 is only made from the highest quality pure alcohol, natural anise essence, and water. This aguardiente contains no sugar cane, and is aged over a period of years in oak barrels. Expect to pay more for top brands of aguardiente like this – it isn’t your standard cheap supermarket variety!
While traditional aguardiente has sugar at its heart, much like its cousin vodka, aguardiente can have many different bases – from vegetables, to grains and fruits.
Some other aguardiente you might come across could be made with:
In other Latin American cultures, you might also find more exotic flavors of aguardiente, such as tamarind and hibiscus.
Aguardiente Alcohol Percentage
In the 1980s, most aguardiente in Colombia was 40% alcohol. Now it’s only 29%, for reasons that aren’t very clear. A 29% alcohol volume doesn’t seem very high compared with similar alcohols on the market. It has been suggested this lower percentage is to keep the prices of aguardiente lower – as there is an alcohol tax on any liquors over 35%.
Brazil passed law in 1996 decreeing that “aguardiente” covers any sugar cane based spirit with alcohol percentages between 38% and 54% (technically Cachaca comes under this umbrella) – and having said that, you can also find Colombian aguardiente brands in this alcohol percent range too.
Fun Fact: In Colombia, it’s illegal to take a bottle of aguardiente from town to another, so if you’re caught – you might be fined or arrested! Fortunately Colombian police are okay with a bit of cash bribery, so you’re mostly likely just to get your aguardiente confiscated.
Is Aguardiente Good For You?
In short….no. Like any other sugary alcohol it can put a strain on your liver, heart, brain, and tooth health, and cause weight gain if you drink too much.
Is Sugar Free Aguardiente Good For You?
Again, no. Aguardiente sin azucar usually has the sugar replaced by chemicals such as phenylalanine which can have negative health effects that might even be worse than sugar.
In addition, the sugar free variants of aguardiente only save you around 2% in calories – so you may as well just enjoy the regular stuff which only gives you a very minor 1.6 calories of sugar for each 100ml serving anyway.
Why Isn’t Aguardiente More Well Known Around The World?
Aguardiente isn’t more well known internationally, as people in general simply prefer other alcohols, so the big name alcohol companies don’t bother producing this smooth, anise-flavored beverage.
This Colombian drink also doesn’t have the refined, ageing qualities of other alcohols like whiskey or tequila, so it isn’t marketable in that way either.
Where To Buy Aguardiente
If you’re in Colombia, it’s hard to miss aguardiente – you can find it everywhere. However, all the different regions of Colombia have their own local brands and varieties – so if you find a favorite in Bogota, you most likely won’t be able to get this in Medellin or Cartagena due to the liquor distribution and production laws of each state.
What Is The Best Aguardiente?
Your aguardiente journey will probably begin with the most popular brand that you see everywhere, especially in Medellin.
Different types of aguardients to try are:
- Antioqueño Tapa Roja -the world’s best selling aguardiente, and arguably the most popular
- Antioqueño 1493 – top tier aguardiente that has been barrel aged
- Antioqueño Tapa Azul – the sugar-free version that we mentioned above
- Llanero – from the east of Colombia
- Aguardiente Amarillo – you won’t miss this, as it’s a bright yellow color!
Aguardiente Mojito Recipe
If you love the traditional mojito, try this simple aguardiente version with a hint of anise flavor. It makes 4 standard drinks
- 3 small limes
- A few fresh spearmint leaves
- 4 Tbsp plain white sugar
- 4 shots of your favorite aguardiente
- Mineral water, soda water, or seltzer
To make your aguardiente mojito:
- Prepare your lime wedges
- Divide the lime wedges, spearmint leaves, and sugar between four glasses and crush them together slightly with a small pestle or wooden spoon
- Tip one shot of aguardiente into each glass
- Add ice cubes
- Top up with your choice of sparkling water
Conclusion – What Is Aguardiente ?
Aguardiente is a popular drink originating in Columbia, with a history dating back to the Quechua indian people. It’s a clear, smooth alcohol made from simple ingredients that include sugar cane, anise, and water.
If you’ve been wondering – what is aguardiente? It’s for good reason. While it’s enjoyed regularly by Colombian locals all over the country, this drink has never made it popular on the global stage. But despite that, you should be able to find aguardiente to buy online, or at any good liquor store near you.