At the heart of every Latin American culture is a drink that defines the late night, early morning vibrato of the people who live there. These spirits tell a story that goes deeper than a quick way to relax, get buzzed, and have fun (though there is certainly that, as well).
When the sun goes down, the bottle goes up, and these cultural icons of the Latin bar take center stage. Depending on which country you go to, the alcoholic beverage of choice will vary based on local availability of ingredients, and the ingrained process that has been developed over centuries to produce it.
You can find these drinks at any liquor store worth a salt, but to truly understand the cultural spirit behind their existence, you must go to no lesser length than hopping on a plane and experiencing that story for yourself.
And don’t forget to bring aspirin.
Colombia – Aguardiente
Aguardiente is about the most fundamental a spirit can get. It is a generic term for alcohol produced from grain that can contain anywhere between 29% and 60% alcohol content by volume. The word “aguardiente” comes from combining two words from Romance language base words for “water” and “fiery” – more commonly known in English as “firewater.”
As with most things in Colombia, aguardiente is best paired with fresh squeezed fruit juice and a side of bandeja paisa. Locals drink the spirit by the bottle, so come prepared with an iron stomach and always be sure to read the label to know just how long a night you’re poised to embark on.
Peru – Pisco
Pisco is a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. It is made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit, and was developed by 16th century Spanish settlers as an alternative to orujo – a pomace brandy that was being imported from Spain.
While you’ll probably find most locals be drinking it straight from the mouth of a shotglass, a popular way to prepare the spirit is in a pisco sour. To make one, mix pisco with egg white, lemon and sugar, then shake with ice until you’re eyes go crossed before pouring it in a coup glass to enjoy with a sprig of fresh mint.
Mexico – Tequila
Tequila gets a bad reputation in most English countries for being a third world spirit only good for making watered down margaritas and causing legendary hangovers. However, one trip to the Tequila region of Mexico will show you just how special and cared for this blue agave plant-based nectar truly is.
65 kilometers northwest of Guadalajara in the highlands of the central western Mexico state of Jalisco sits the city of Tequila, where blue agave is grown, harvested, and processed into one of the world’s most popular Latin American spirits. Good tequila is aged for over a year (añejo) in any number of farm-specific vessels – from stainless steel vats to recycled American oak barrels.
Cuba – Rum
If there’s one thing Johnny Depp taught us (and there is only one), it’s that rum goes hand in hand with the sea locked islands of the Caribbean Sea. Cuba, specifically, has a bustling culture of rum drinkers, something that is obvious to anyone who is lucky enough to step onto the shores of any number of the country’s spectacular beaches.
Rum is distilled from sugarcane by a curated process of fermentation and distillation. It is produced clear, then can be aged in a variety of ways, but most commonly in oak barrels. Sugarcane, along with tobacco, is Cuba’s largest national crop, so it makes sense that the alcoholic beverage that would define its culture would be produced from it.
Brazil – Cachaça
Brazil is commonly known as the party capital of the world. Specifically, Rio de Janeiro fills its streets with dancers, vendors, bars, restaurants, and a population of cachaça drinkers that make no mistake about their beverage of choice.
Much like rum, cachaça is a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice. It’s also known throughout Brazil as as aguardente, pinga, and caninha, among others. It mixes well with any of Brazil’s fresh, sweet, tropical fruit juices, and is as synonymous with Brazilian culture as Neymar and Carnival.