Local residents share a bottle of aguardiente at a bar in La Estrella, near Medellin.
MANIZALES, Colombia, 2 Sep 2003 (Associated Press)
For centuries it has fueled their binges, triggered their hangovers and supposedly cured their colds. So it has come as a shock to the producers of aguardiente, or firewater, that Colombians are starting to sour on the national drink. Hit by tax increases, shifting tastes and the competitive forces of globalization, aguardiente sales have fallen 34 percent nationwide since 1994 - from 9.9 million cases to 6.6 million.
Ever since the mid-1600s, when the king of Spain tried to ban it, aguardiente has been Colombia's beloved booze. Drunk from crystal shot glasses in wood-paneled lounges or from plastic cups in honky-tonks, aguardiente knows no class boundaries.
Colombian emigrants become downright misty-eyed when they mourn the scarcity of aguardiente in their adopted homelands. "What am I without aguardiente? I'm a nation without people, a tree without roots," a Colombian living in the United States once lamented in a now famous poem.
Andean farmworkers often carry a flask to ward off the frosty air. Step into a bar, and among the beer guzzlers and whiskey sippers you'll see people knocking back shots of the sweet anise-flavored liquor. "It's not a sipping drink. You get a table and a bottle and sit there until it's done," said Pablo Robledo of the Caldas Liquor Industry, which produces Cristal aguardiente, a best-selling brand.
Time was, you couldn't get Colombians off aguardiente. Colombia's Spanish colonial rulers banned aguardiente in 1693, fearing it led to moral decay. The colonists ignored the ban. In 1700, the Spanish crown admitted defeat, and monopolized the industry. The colonists didn't much like his majesty muscling in, and scattered rebellions erupted across the land, but the controls remained tight until Colombia won independence in 1810.
Many Colombians can sing by heart a song that is almost as sappy as the drink itself: "Give me an aguardiente, made of the sugarcane of my valleys and the anise of my mountains. Don't serve me a drink from abroad which is expensive and doesn't taste as good."
But today, aguardiente is facing competition from beer, which costs about the same; rum, which is only slightly costlier; and imported wines and spirits, which are less expensive with the easing of trade tariffs. Aguardiente is also heavily taxed. In Caldas state, about 60 percent of the price of a bottle of Cristal goes to taxes, Robledo said. The Association of Liquor Manufacturers recently warned state governors that tax increases of 33 percent in the past decade are driving prices too high, that medical and education programs financed by aguardiente levies would be jeopardized and the whole industry "could go broke."
"That would be a shame, because if aguardiente goes, the country will be losing a national symbol," said association spokeswoman Luz Maria Zapata.
Another challenge looms in the shape of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is supposed to knock down tariff barriers. If Colombia doesn't sort out its aguardiente policy by the time the pact is comes into effect - slated for 2005 - the industry will be in even worse shape, Robledo said.
"There are a lot of threats out there," he said. "We need to pinch ourselves, or we're going to drown."
So producers are coming up with new versions.
To make aguardiente, molasses is trucked in from Colombia's sugarcane fields near the Pacific coast to the distilleries, where it is mixed with anise. Distillation converts the sugar to alcohol, with most aguardientes weighing in at about 60 proof. More sugar is then added to give aguardiente its trademark sweetness. The Caldas distillery, at the base of a thickly forested mountain outside Manizales, now makes Sugar-Free Cristal - one calorie per glass.
A billboard above Manizales' streets proclaims: "Aguardiente Cristal. No sugar. No regrets." Nectar, a top brand produced in Bogota, has a new, smoother "Blue Label" version for the upscale market. The distillery also plans to introduce a sugar-free aguardiente.