It was only five years ago that a New York Times headline declared: “Move Over Tequila, It’s Mescal’s Turn.” And, as is often the case with things the New York Times declares, white folks were all over the new “mescal” craze like Chile Tajín on toasted chapulines. Yet the surging popularity of mezcal wasn’t unique to the American drinking scene, and even young Mexicans had only recently begun viewing the agave spirit as more than a regional moonshine. Nowadays the cityscapes of Mexico City, New York, and beyond are dotted with chic mezcal bars and global hipsters pontificate on the virtues of Tobala versus Espadín, putting growing pressure on traditional mezcal producers across Mexico.
Now what will come next after mezcal fever eventually abates is yet to be seen, but we all know that Latin America is actually chock-full of regional spirits that could easily hold their own alongside mezcal, tequila, or any of the more traditional liquors. So to honor the diverse spirits that kept our ancestors curados, ajumados, achispados, and pedos, we’ve put together a list of 11 traditional alcoholic brews for you to mix up your mixology and impress your friends. Available at your local barrio liquor store. If they don’t have it, ask for the secret stash in Spanish.
Ironically, Argentina’s only entirely homegrown liquor was invented by an American immigrant to Buenos Aires in 1864. Made from a mixture of sweet and bitter orange peels, Hesperidina is packed with flavonoids, lending the apéritif a special anti-oxidant quality. The spirit also happens to be the first patent ever approved in Argentina, as rampant counterfeiting of the recipe led to the creation of the country’s patent and trademark office.
Maybe you haven’t heard of it yet, but Hollywood big shot Steven Soderbergh has bet a pretty penny on the future success of Singani here in the States. Distilled from a white grape called Muscat of Alexandria, Singani is essentially an unaged form of brandy that’s been produced in the Bolivian Andes since the 16th century. Soderbergh came across Bolivia’s national liquor while shooting his biopic Che some ten years ago, and the Traffic director was so smitten he made it his mission to share it with the world.
You’ve probably heard of the Brazilian sugar cane spirit Cachaça — or at least gulped it down in a Caipirinha — but chances are you’ve never run across this alcoholic tree-bark infusion first consumed by Brazil’s indigenous Tupi people. Known far and wide as a potent aphrodisiac, Catuaba has also been proven to have antidepressant qualities and is used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and for improved memory function. In other words, it basically a mix of every good thing imaginable.
Sure, aguardiente can technically be used to refer to any Latin American moonshine, but Colombia’s de facto national beverage takes the concept to a whole new level. Derived from sugar cane, Colombian aguardiente is infused with aniseed to achieve its distinctive flavor, with each region of the country producing its own unique spin on the spirit. You can mix it up if you want, but Colombians prefer their aguardiente neat, como debe ser.
Guaro (Costa Rica)
Similar to Colombian aguardiente, Guaro is distilled from sugar cane and has its origins in small-time stills that operated outside of government regulations. In an effort to exert some control over the clandestine guaro industry, the Costa Rican government nationalized its production in 1851, with the final result being Cacique Guaro — the only legal version of the spirit in the country. Ticos prefer to mix it with fruit juice or Fresca, but you can try a shot if you want to know what fire tastes like.
Triculi (Dominican Republic)
This corn-based spirit is traditionally elaborated in the southern coastal town of San Pedro de Macoris, where small-time distillers take to the banks of rivers to cook up this highly explosive mix of corn and leavening. In addition to the liquor’s deadly dangerous preparation, bad batches of triculi have taken more than a few lives over the years. But don’t worry, there is a legally-sold version of the drink that won’t make you go blind or kill your cousin; just stay away from anything sold in plastic bottles.
Tíc táck (El Salvador)
El Salvador’s national liquor may not have a very smooth finish, but this unaged sugar cane spirit is still a beloved symbol of Salvadoran national identity. Sometimes referred to as “sugarcane vodka,” Tíc Táck makes up for its lack of aging by being super filtered, which probably inspires the vodka associations. Add a touch of sugar and glycerin to smooth things out, mix with Coke, and you might even think you’re drinking a Cuba libre; though a straight shot will leave no doubt that you are in the presence of a uniquely harsh Central American spirit.
Most Guatemalans wouldn’t think to ask for a bottle “Quetzalteca” when picking up this emblematic cane liquor from a local licorería, opting instead for its moderately racist nickname “La Indita.” This, of course, refers to the indigenous woman that graces the bottle’s label and harks back to the K’iché culture that predominates in the city of Quetzaltenango, where the drink was traditionally elaborated. Quetzalteca stands apart from its cane liquor counterparts in Central America for the tasty fruit infusions that virtually require you to drink it straight, with Agua de Jamaica and Tamarindo being two local favorites.
Traditionally used for ceremonial purposes in the Mayan communities of southern Mexico, Pox is a tasty spirit distilled from a mix of corn, sugar cane, and wheat that can be infused with everything from guava to rosemary. While Pox is standard fare in drinking establishments across Chiapas and some parts of Yucatán, it has only recently begun to creep northward into the trendy nightlife districts of Mexico City. “Pox” means “medicine” in the Tzotzil language, so feel free to use your next head cold as an excuse to try this one-of-a-kind liquor.
Chicha de jora (Peru/Ecuador/Bolivia)
This alcoholic brew is actually much closer to beer than distilled spirits, and has been consumed in the Andes since the glory days of the Inca empire. Prepared by extracting the malt sugars from a type of endemic yellow maize known as Jora, chicha is then boiled and aged in large ceramic vats for several days before making its way to the local chichería. Some throw in Quinoa and raw cane sugar to give consistency and help along the fermentation process, but the traditional catalysts are ptyalin enzymes from the saliva of the brewmaster. So if you happen to run across this beverage in a small Andean town, just make sure you wouldn’t mind drinking the maker’s spit before you sit down for a glass.
Pitorro (Puerto Rico)
Okay, the New York Times did technically write an article about an artisanal pitorro boom taking over the South Bronx, but the fact that it was relegated to the “NY/Regional” section probably saved this beloved sugar cane moonshine from the 21st century equivalent of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. That’s not to say that pitorro won’t and shouldn’t blow up. With over four million self-identified Puerto Ricans stateside, Boricuas have really just been waiting for some semblance of legality — and perhaps an artisanal twist — to replace their Don Q with some homestyle pitorro. Recipes vary, but Rafael Rodríguez’s family recipe currently being used at the Port Morris Distillery includes apples and honey.