Many Venezuelans Can No Longer Afford Beer, So They're Drinking Cheap Agave Liquor


A cocuy drink made with pepper sauce and fruit juice on a local bar in Barquisimeto.
John Otis for NPR

A cocuy drink made with pepper sauce and fruit juice on a local bar in Barquisimeto.

Amid the worst economic meltdown in Venezuela's history — a crisis that has forced thousands of businesses to shut their doors — one unlikely product is flying off the shelves: the equivalent of Venezuelan tequila.

Called cocuy, the alcoholic beverage was first produced by indigenous groups 500 years ago. It has long been stigmatized as moonshine for drunks and poor people. But with hyperinflation driving up the cost of beer, wine and conventional spirits, many Venezuelans are turning to this drink of their ancestors, which is easier on the pocketbook.

"We never used to drink this. We drank beer," said Jonathan Yepez, a car mechanic in the western Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, as he stood in line at a bodega to buy cocuy. "Cocuy was for old people and grandparents. ... But now everyone — from adolescents to adults — drinks cocuy."

Cocuy is made from green agave plants that grow in arid regions of the western Venezuelan states of Lara and Falcón. The stalks and heads of the plants are roasted in underground ovens, then fermented in vats, with the resulting liquid distilled into cocuy.

Green agave is a close cousin of the agave varieties used to make Mexican tequila and mezcal, and the smoky-fruity taste of cocuy is similar. Its color varies from clear to amber. But while Mexico mass-produces tequila, which is consumed around the world, cocuy is produced by hand in small batches and is hardly known outside of Venezuela. Most cocuy is 40 proof, but some can be higher.

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"We are very proud of this drink," said Jaime Vásquez, a well-known cocuy maker in Barquisimeto and one of the country's most enthusiastic ambassadors for the liquor.

But the road to respectability has been a long one. For decades, cocuy was outlawed in what Vásquez described an effort to boost Venezuelan beer and rum producers. Like prohibition in the U.S., the move forced the cocuy trade underground.

"A lot of people went to prison for selling cocuy," Vásquez said. Cocuy producers, he added, "were treated like drug traffickers."

After Hugo Chávez ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1999, his government began to promote and extol local and indigenous products. In 2006, Venezuelan lawmakers declared cocuy part of Venezuela's national patrimony, opening the door to issuing licenses to produce it.

Vásquez and other producers began setting up cocuy stores and experimenting with new varieties and flavors, like peach, pineapple and ginger. One of the most popular types of cocuy, called "blind snake," purports to have medicinal qualities and is sold with a dead snake inside the bottle.

But the main reason cocuy is suddenly in vogue is its price.

Due to shortages of raw materials as well as taxes, a case of Venezuelan-made beer now costs the equivalent of about $20. (Venezuela has almost run out of beer entirely at times during its economic crisis). Prices for rum and imported wine and whiskey are also beyond the reach of many Venezuelans. By contrast, a liter of cocuy sells for less than $2. The price is even lower if customers bring in their own bottles for refills.

"Beer is tasty but it costs a dollar a bottle," said William Hernández, a Barquisimeto cook who had just gotten off work. Pointing to his newly purchased bottle of cocuy, he said: "This costs about $2 and lasts a lot longer."

To meet rising demand for cocuy, unlicensed distillers have moved into the market but what they sell isn't always safe. Unscrupulous distillers sometimes use chemicals that can sicken drinkers. So far this year, three people in and around Barquisimeto have died from consuming adulterated cocuy, said Liz Gascón, a local journalist.

Legitimate producers insist that once Venezuela's economy recovers, the best cocuy will be sold alongside top-shelf tequila, single malt Scotch and cognac. And just as bars selling artisanal mezcal are popping up all over the U.S. and Mexico, Venezuela is home to a growing number of cocuy bars.

At one bar in Barquisimeto, called simply Cocuy, patrons drank flaming cocuy cocktails made with fruit juice, pepper sauce and high-proof cocuy. Bartender Yoelis Álvarez said she's proud to serve it.

"It's like pisco in Peru," Álvarez said, referring to that country's best-known spirit. "These are the original liquors of our countries."

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