Many Venezuelans Can No Longer Afford Beer, So They're Drinking Cheap Agave Liquor Cocuy was once stigmatized as moonshine, but with hyperinflation putting other drinks out of reach, many Venezuelans have turned to this cheap form of alcohol. It tastes similar to tequila and mezcal.
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Many Venezuelans Can No Longer Afford Beer, So They're Drinking Cheap Agave Liquor

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

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

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/738422439/739416348" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's one side effect of an economic crisis in Venezuela. With hyperinflation driving up costs, many Venezuelans are consuming a cheaper, homemade liquor which was once outlawed. Reporter John Otis has the story.

JAIME VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Jaime Vasquez is showing me around his small distillery in the western Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto. This is where he makes an artisanal alcohol called cocuy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID BEING POURED)

OTIS: These vats hold fermented juice from agave plants. After the concoction is distilled, workers using funnels pour the clear cocuy liquid into glass bottles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID BEING POURED)

OTIS: Green agave, which is used to make cocuy, is a close cousin of the Mexican varieties that produce mescal and tequila, and the taste of cocuy is similar. Salud. Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

OTIS: Not bad. (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Vasquez tells me that cocuy was first made by indigenous groups 500 years ago. But it was long dismissed by Venezuela's upper class as moonshine for the poor. In 1974, cocuy was outlawed in an effort to boost the country's beer and rum industries.

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Lots of people were jailed for selling cocuy," Vasquez says. "They were treated like drug traffickers."

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL VAT BEING TAPPED ON)

OTIS: In 2006, the prohibition was finally lifted, and Venezuelan lawmakers declared cocuy part of Venezuela's cultural patrimony. Vasquez began producing fine aged cocuy in oak barrels. He also makes a popular variety that contains snake oil for its medicinal qualities.

Is that a real snake? No. It's plastic. It's plastic?

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: It's real?

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: So this is a bottle of cocuy that's actually got a snake inside the bottle.

But the main reason cocuy is suddenly in vogue is its price. In a country where the monthly minimum wage is just $5, cocuy is the only liquor many Venezuelans can afford.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CHIMES RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At this bodega in Barquisimeto, a bottle of low-grade cocuy goes for about $2. The price drops further for customers who bring their own bottles. Among those waiting for a refill is Jonathan Yepez, a car mechanic and a reluctant convert to cocuy.

JONATHAN YEPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We never used to drink this. We drank beer," he says. "Cocuy was for old people and grandparents chewing the fat. But now everyone, from adolescents to adults, drinks cocuy." To meet this new demand, unlicensed distillers have moved into the market. But what they sell isn't always safe. So far this year, three people in and around Barquisimeto have died from consuming adulterated cocuy. Legitimate producers insist that once Venezuela's economy recovers, the best cocuy will be sold alongside top-shelf tequila, single malt scotch and cognac.

(SOUNDBITE OF VENEZUELAN BAR AMBIENCE)

OTIS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE BEING SHAKEN)

OTIS: At this one, the bartender makes me a flaming cocuy cocktail by mixing fruit juice, pepper sauce and high-proof cocuy. It tastes pretty good, and as far as I can tell, there were no snakes involved. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Barquisimeto, Venezuela.

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