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Boozing and Spirits in Latin America 🥂 Gringo's Guide
For ye' alcoholics amongst us looking to booze heavy in LatAm...
Guest post by esteemed LatAm scholar: @GringoGuerrilla
There are few things more relaxing than settling down with a strong drink in hand, taking in the view of your preferred LatAm city.
And, while there’s no shortage of travelers here that enjoy a drink or two, not everyone makes the effort to indulge in some of the unique, local liquor offerings, aside from perhaps the local brand of beer.
…and that’s a shame!
Today we’ll go on a little tour – from Mexico right down to Argentina – and take a gander at some traditional Latin American hooch!
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Mexico 🇲🇽 Mezcal
Mexico is, of course, best known for tequila.
But personally? I’d opt for mezcal over tequila…
Every. Single. Time.
The flavor of mezcal might be described as a “smokier version of tequila,” due to the roasting process of the agave plant that occurs during production. You’ll find that flavors of different mezcales will vary more than different tequilas. Whereas tequila must be made from one specific agave plant (blue weber agave), mezcal is more flexible and can be made from any agave plant.
Zacatecas, Durango, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas all produce mezcal, but the best stuff these days seems to be coming out of Oaxaca and Guerrero.
If in doubt, purchase your mezcal from one of these two states.
Guatemala 🇬🇹 Quetzalteca
The liquor Guatemala is most known for is its excellent rum: Ron Zacapa.
However, the drink considered to be the country’s national beverage is something called Quetzalteca.
Like many local LatAm libations, it’s made from sugar cane. Until recently, Quetzalteca wasn’t worth discussing – it was your typical rot-gut liquor that folks drank because it was cheap, like caña in Paraguay or seco in Panama.
But then something interesting happened.
During the past decade or so, Quetzalteca upped their game with the introduction of flavors and a flashy rebranding. Today, it’s no longer thought of as merely a poor man’s drink.
In fact, you can now see this being served in cocktails at higher-end bars in Guatemala City.
Dominican Republic 🇩🇴 Mamajuana
The liquor with the best name on the list no doubt goes to Dominican Republic’s own Mamajuana!
It’s made by mixing rum, honey, red wine, tree bark and a wide variety of herbs of one’s choosing (anis, clove, cinnamon, agave leaves, basil, just to name a few options). It’s best made with dark rum and taken neat or as a shot.
It's also known as “liquid Viagra,” so it’s perhaps no surprise that the world’s most famous playboy, Dominican gentleman Rubirosa Porfirio, was an avid fan of the beverage.
Colombia 🇨🇴 Aguardiente
Like Mezcal, many of you have probably heard of Colombia’s (in)famous Aguardiente. The word Aguardiente across Latin America is a generic term that simply refers to any cheap, distilled liquor.
However, in Colombia, the word has effectively become synonymous with Aguardiente Antioqueño, the country’s most popular alcoholic beverage.
Again, like in most Latin American countries, it’s a sugar cane-based liquor. Aguardiente Antioqueño is flavored with essence of anis which – for those unfamiliar – means it’s going to taste a little like black licorice. Anis flavored beverages are polarizing, so chances are you’ll either love this or hate it.
It’s best drunk ice-cold and taken to the dome in shot form!
Peru 🇵🇪 Pisco
Peruvians are fiercely proud of their national liquor, Pisco. As they should be! This grape-based liquor makes a damn fine cocktail.
It’s got an interesting history to it as well (although there is some debate as to whether this is how it went down).
When the Spanish arrived in Peru, they wanted wine. Problem was that the little wine they had with them had to go to the church. Their solution? Import grapes from the Spanish Canary Islands and start growing them in Peru! Any grapes that were unsuitable for wine were given to local farmers, who made liquor from it. This liquor became the now famous Pisco.
It tastes mildly sweet and – unsurprisingly – has a hint of grape flavor…although less than you might expect. It’s deceptively smooth given its high alcohol percentage (38-48%).
Still, I wouldn’t drink this straight up…and why would you when you can make a lovely cocktail with it, such as the refreshing Pisco Sour (pictured below).
P.S. Chile also claims Pisco as a national beverage. However, most evidence suggests Peru has a stronger defense to the origin and creation of this liquor!
Bolivia 🇧🇴 Singani
Moving on down to Bolivia!
The liquor this South American country is best known for is Singani.
I was able to get my hands on a bottle of this during my time living in Mexico City and it exceeded all expectations. It tastes like pisco, but slightly sweeter…which makes sense, as it’s also grape-based and therefore produced in the same manner.
The only real difference is that Singani is only made from one type of grape (white Muscat of Alexandria grapes), whereas pisco can be made from many kinds of grapes.
An interesting tidbit: acclaimed film director Steven Soderbergh became enamoured with Singani while filming the biographical film Che in Bolivia and started the liquor company Singani 63 to introduce Americans to this fine Bolivian beverage!
Brazil 🇧🇷 Cachaça
Cachaça is far and away the most popular liquor choice in Brazil. It’s a sugarcane-based drink (surprise, surprise) that many assume would taste like rum.
But it doesn’t!
Cachaça is relatively sweeter, and has a lighter, less ‘caramel’ or ‘spicy’ flavor than most rums. To offer a crude description, I’d best define a basic, cheaper Cachaça as a mix somewhere between rum and tequila blanco. I realize this sounds disastrous but trust me: it’s worth a try!
While I wouldn’t drink this stuff straight, it tastes positively divine in an ice-filled caipirinha (pictured below).
Argentina 🇦🇷 Fernet
This wildly popular drink in Argentina is Italian by origin. Although there are now several companies that produce Fernet, the most famous remains Fernet Branca, which is the brand I’d recommend trying.
Fernet carries an exceptionally bitter taste and contains an array of herbs, which may include chamomile, cardamon, rhubarb, and saffron (among others). In fact, the drink is so bitter, it’s invariably mixed with Coca-Cola in at least a 50/50 ratio – you’re not going to find many people enjoying Fernet on the rocks or as a shot.
It’s difficult to describe just how bizarrely popular Fernet con Coca is among Argentines; almost everyone drinks it, particularly in the provinces of Córdoba and Buenos Aires.
It appears to be a uniquely Argentine preference, as most foreigners I’ve run into do not like Fernet in any form!
Alas, we can’t cover absolutely everything in the wonderful world of LatAm liquors.
That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other excellent options if you’re looking to do some drinking south of the border and beyond.
Mexico 🇲🇽 Pulque
A thick, milk-colored, sour beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. You’re *probably not going to like this one, but it’s worth trying once.
Honduras 🇭🇳 Guifiti
Guifiti is like the Dominican Republic’s Mamajuana: rum mixed with a whole world of whatever herbs and spices you want. It’s typically made by the Garífuna people of Honduras.
Nicaragua 🇳🇮 Flor de Caña
A truly excellent rum that you’ve probably all heard of by now. Nicaragua may not have all that much to boast about in the whole scheme of things, but its national rum, Flor de Caña, is world-renowned.
Venezuela 🇻🇪 Diplomático
Venezuelan rum is somewhat less acknowledged internationally than other Latin American rums, but it’s top-class. The country boasts a handful of solid rums, but I’d suggest giving Diplomático a spin.
Uruguay 🇺🇾 Grappa
Although Italian through and through, Grappa became popular in Uruguay and Argentina due to their large number of Italian immigrants. The Uruguayan take on grappa includes honey and is called grappamiel. It’s consumed during Uruguay’s winter months.
Boozing and Spirits in Latin America 🥂
…and there you have it! A quick guide to LatAm spirits.
If I had to choose one item on the list as a favorite, I would choose Mezcal – it’s one of the few I’ve covered that can be enjoyed both straight and in a cocktail.
Second place would go to Pisco or Singani.
Thanks for reading. A pleasure as always, and until next time!