What’s Aguardiente: 10 Facts About Colombia’s “FireWater” Drink

Let’s dive into the heart of Colombian nightlife, the fiery spirit that fuels celebrations and gatherings – Aguardiente.

It’s a rite of passage if you’re visiting Colombia and a staple on all occasions, from family get-togethers to the wildest parties.

I’ve been exploring Colombia since 2015 and have had the opportunity to test the aguardiente in every possible and unimaginable situation.

Here’s everything you need to know about this intriguing, anise-flavored alcoholic drink known as the ‘fire water.’

Aguardiente shots (1)

Who are we 👋

Since 2015, Adrien, Alejandra, and I (Tom) have been helping travelers explore Colombia. Here, you will find everything you need to fall in love with this beautiful country easily.

10# What’s Aguardiente?

Crédito Aguardiente Antioqueño
Credit: Aguardiente Antioqueño

Hailing from the vibrant country of Colombia, Aguardiente is the local distilled alcoholic spirit of choice. This anise-flavored drink carries a modest 29% alcohol content, making it comparatively mild against the 40% you’d typically find in whiskies and vodkas.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Aguardiente packs a punch and offers a flavor that is as robust as the culture it represents.

Once you’ve had a sip, you’ll find it bears a resemblance to Turkish raki, French pastis, Greek ouzo, and Italian sambuca. Yet, it carries a unique Colombian twist that sets it apart.

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9# Why is it called aguardiente?

Aguardiente is the fusion of Agua (water) and Ardiente (burning). Its slang word is Guaro.

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8# Distilling Sugarcane Juice: How to make Aguardiente?

The magic of Aguardiente comes from a blend of alcohol, sugar, anise, and water.

Traditional methods involve using a variety of herbs and spices like mint, thyme, and anise in grain form, all mixed and distilled in an alembic, a traditional distillation apparatus.

Nowadays, the process begins with the fermentation of sugarcane juice mixed with water and yeast. Distillation follows, ramping up the alcohol content, with the final touch of anise added for that distinct flavor.

Some high-end variants, like Aguardiente Real 1943, offer a more refined experience. These contain no sugar cane and are aged in oak barrels, perfect for those with a discerning palate—supposedly. Its price is about twice the regular price. And to the question, is it worth it? I couldn’t answer because I haven’t tasted it yet. But to be honest, I doubt it 😀

7# The Origins of Aguardiente

Viterbo - horseride - caña de azucar
Sugar cane cultivation

Let’s embark on a time-travel journey back to the days of Christopher Columbus. He introduced sugar cane to America on his second voyage, setting the stage for the first distillations of Aguardiente. This spirited concoction soon outshone the traditional indigenous chicha in popularity.

Fast-forward to the late 18th century; the first factory in the Viceroyalty of New Granada was not dedicated to textiles, but to traditional Aguardiente. Nestled in Villa de Leyva, the “Real Fábrica de Destilaciones del Nuevo Reino” was helmed by Don Juan Esteban Ricaurte and bolstered by anise-growing towns in its vicinity. That’s how Aguardiente became a linchpin of Colombian culture.

6# Each Colombia’s department has its Aguardiente Brand

Aguardiente bottle

Colombia is not just rich in culture, music, and coffee—it’s also brimming with a variety of Aguardiente brands. Each department has its own distinct version. I’ve tasted quite a few, and I dare say—don’t pelt me with stones, Colombians—that the flavor doesn’t swing dramatically from brand to brand.

Here’s a little snippet of the Aguardiente universe:

  • Aguardiente Antioqueño: The pride of paisas, available in eye-catching red, blue, and green bottles. The blue version is a sugar-free aguardiente, promising a less fearsome hangover—I tested it, and the morning-after wasn’t pretty. It’s the most famous aguardiente brand.
  • Aguardiente Néctar: Distinct for its panela-based distillation, it offers Néctar Azul and Néctar Club.
  • Aguardiente Cristal: Crafted by Industria Licorera de Caldas, it comes in traditional and sugar-free variants—aguardiente sin azucar.
  • Aguardiente Amarillo de Manzanares: A hidden gem from Caldas, it stands out for its toned-down anise flavor.
  • Aguardiente Blanco del Valle: A star in Valle del Cauca, it comes in various presentations.
  • Aguardiente Mil Demonios: Touted as a “Super Premium” beverage, it is independent but related to the Industria Licorera de Magdalena.
  • Aguardiente Tapa Roja: A Tolima favorite, it offers four types, including Tapa Roja Oro and Tapa Roja Special.
  • Aguardiente Llanero: A hit in the Orinoquía region, it has multiple versions like the Llanero Caño Cristales.
  • Aguardiente Nariño: Recently shifted production to Empresa Licorera de Cundinamarca.
  • Aguardientes de Boyacá: It offers Aguardiente Líder and Aguardiente Ónix Sello Negro Añejo.
  • Aguardiente Desquite: An artisanal variety from Cundinamarca.
  • Aguardiente Júbilo: The first super-premium artisanal aguardiente, crafted with waters from Parque Nacional los Nevados.

5# When do you drink Aguardiente?

Bottle of rum Tom
Ok, this is rum. But you get the point 🙂

No matter where you find yourself in this tropical paradise – be it on a long-distance bus ride across the Andean plains, or sitting down for a hearty meal of Bandeja Paisa – you’re likely to spot someone sipping on this fiery spirit.

The older generation, in particular, enjoys Aguardiente at all times of the day, giving credence to the spirit’s versatility.

Nightlife in the bustling cities of Bogotá, Medellín, or Cartagena is incomplete without Aguardiente. The spirit is not only a crowd-pleaser but also easy on the wallet. A bottle shared among friends adds a splash of authenticity to your Colombian soiree, making you feel like a true local.

→ Aguardiente is a staple during Colombian gatherings. Friends and family buy a bottle to share, pouring shots as they sway to the rhythm of salsa or reggaeton. The strong taste is often offset with slices of lime – a tip that’s worth remembering.

→ Aguardiente is always present at Colombian festivals.

On game nights, Aguardiente takes the spotlight. Football enthusiasts take a swig every 15 minutes, every time a goal is scored, or just whenever they please.

→ You can buy aguardiente about everywhere in Colombia.

4# The Art of Drinking Colombian Aguardiente

Credito Alquimico Cocktail
Credit: Alquímico

This mighty spirit is enjoyed in a few different ways:

Straight Shot: Whether chilled (a lot better) or at room temperature, it’s more common to drink it in shots. Drink it fast to forget about the taste, but be careful not to overdo it, or you might end up waking up in front of your hotel, just like I did in Támesis.

On the Rocks: Add two ice cubes, a splash of water or soda, and garnish with a lemon slice for a refreshing twist.

Food Pairings: Aguardiente pairs beautifully with fruits like uchuvas (Cape gooseberries), lemon slices, or even green mango with a pinch of salt.

Cocktails: A few bars, like the famous Alquimico in Cartagena, create cocktails with Aguardiente instead of rum.

The bottle may be made of glass or, strangely enough, come from a tetra pak, as if it were a bottle of fruit juice.

3# Unlocking the Aguardiente Bottle

Opening an Aguardiente bottle can be a bit of a challenge, but it’s a rite of passage for any traveler immersing themselves in Colombian culture.

The struggle lies in the plastic piece on the mouth of the bottle, designed to prevent refilling with counterfeit liquor.

If the spirit doesn’t pour out when you turn the bottle upside down, don’t fret. A few firm thumps on the bottom of the bottle should do the trick.

2# Does This Colombian Drink Expire?

Laugh it off! Aguardiente, a blend of sugar, sterilized water, and alcohol, is practically immortal. Don’t expect the taste to transform over time, though. It maintains its distinct flavor, whether you’re sipping it today or a year from now.

1# The Great Aguardiente Divide: A Love-Hate Affair

Credito Aguardiente de Antioquia (1)
Credit: Aguardiente de Antioquia

The debate over Aguardiente rages on. This potent spirit triggers strong reactions, creating a fascinating divide between those who cherish its unique taste and cultural significance, and those who can’t quite stomach it. The discussions are particularly vibrant between locals and foreigners.

As you might now understand, Aguardiente is not just a national drink; it’s the lifeblood of Colombian social gatherings. This spirit is the first guest at family reunions, parties, and even business meetings. It’s the liquid ice-breaker that eases introductions, sparks conversations, and fosters friendships.

Aguardiente holds a sacred spot in the heart of Colombians. This fiery drink is a symbol of national pride and identity. Criticizing it is akin to questioning Colombia’s cultural heritage – a sensitive subject that is best broached with respect and understanding.

My Personal Take: The Colombian Aguardiente Experience

Masaya Medellin Cocktail (1)

As for me, I have a complex relationship with Aguardiente. I’m not its biggest fan when it comes to taste.

Yet, there’s something about the spirit of Colombia embodied in this popular drink that makes me appreciate it.

The charm of pairing Aguardiente shots with Salsa steps is a unique experience that lures me in from time to time.

It’s the Colombian magic that I’ve come to love since 2015, and I’m sure it will continue to enchant me and many other travelers for years to come.

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Tomplanmytrip’s sections

I have been traveling around Colombia and Mexico since 2015 to discover new experiences and help travelers make the right choices.

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