Aguardiente “Firewater”: Sugarcane Alcohol in Loja, Ecuador

Young sugarcane field, 2 months after planting 

The history of what liquor or brew a culture drinks boils down to (literally) a short inductive process: simply look around you. What is growing there that can be fermented, or fermented then distilled? In Europe, that would be fruit, grains, and tubers. In the US and Canada, the favorites are fruit and grains including corn. In the Caribbean, Central and South America, sugarcane alcohol is “king.”

When most of us imagine sugarcane fields, we think of hot, sultry, lowland locales like Indonesia where sugarcane originated. In the Americas, we would likely picture cane fields in Cuba or Brazil. However, anyone who spends time traveling through the Andean province of Loja in Southern Ecuador, cannot help but notice that all the best agricultural locations are given over to growing sugarcane.

The high fertile valleys of Loja Province, built up over millennia from the rich silt runoff coming down off the surrounding mountains, were once the home of indigenous corn crops, calabaza squash, and native legumes -- the “three sisters” of companion cropping in the Americas. These prime flat farming spots in the valleys have long since been sold off to large cane producers, or the original owners have adopted this sweet mono-crop.

The once labor-intensive cultivation and harvesting of sugarcane, now a mechanized agricultural process in many places, still exacts a heavy price from the land and people who live nearby. Sugarcane requires vast amounts of water: up to 2000 gallons of fresh water to produce a pound of refined cane sugar, according to the World Wildlife Fund. That’s almost nine gallons of water per teaspoon of table sugar. The pesticide runoff from all of the cane producing countries also has some very far-reaching impacts, having already taken a toll on the major coral systems in our oceans. Most people are already well aware that large monocultures rob local farmers of self-sustaining agriculture. Single crop monopolies make them dependent on more expensive food imports, which in turn deepens economic inequality and adds needlessly to global carbon emissions because of the required transport.

Why all this discussion of gloomy sugarcane environmental ravages? That’s because all addictive substances have a dark lineage. Local products made from Lojano sugarcane certainly are no different. Much of the cane grown in Loja province goes into making industrial ethanol. Arguably, our devotion to combustion engines, for which this is often used, may just be an addiction we will never kick and which will alter life as we know it permanently. However, we can distract ourselves from these bleak outcomes waiting not too far down the road by indulging in the really wonderful local products of Lojano sugarcane -- booze and candy!

Cane crusher extracting juice
Lojanos have always known what is good: Sad music, strong liquor, and super-sweet candy! The candy, made from panela or blocks of brown sugar, comes in varieties too numerous to name in this article. It will be the subject of another story. Suffice to say that you know you are in Loja when you see myriad forms of brown sugar candies piled sky-high, especially at our province’s annual fair, the oldest in Ecuador. The historic reason for making panela is that harvested sugar cane was too heavy to cart or truck to a central processing plant, therefore, all the growers had to have their own little sugar refining operations. Fresh squeezed cane juice, in a long and laborious operation, gets boiled down into a thick paste that was then molded into small bricks of panela.  The condensed cane juice panela made the sugar easily transportable and much more valuable.

Last but not least, sugarcane can be made into a few types of alcohol and many cocktails. When we think of alcohol from sugarcane, rum is the drink that usually comes to mind. Rum is a higher proof product of distilled molasses aged in wooden casks. In Loja, the common types of alcohol are made from distilled cane juice which is “bottle-aged.” On sale in Loja is the well known Cantaclaro (translates as “sing clear”) sugarcane brandy with a lower proof than rum. It is produced by a huge bottling company ILELSA (Industria Licorera Embotelladora Loja SA), whose logo seems to be everywhere you turn.

Out in the campo or countryside, in agricultural towns like Catamayo, Malacatos, and Vilcabamba, the “artisanal” or home-produced sugarcane liquor of choice is punta.  Punta is a variety of aguardiente, which means “firewater.” “Water that burns” is distiller terminology that dates from the Roman Empire. People have been making their own kinds of aguardiente for millennia. Making punta in southern Ecuador is neither legal or illegal. It hovers in this legal no-man’s-land because of its long home-brewing tradition, and because of the number of people who depend on it for economic sustenance. News outlets will periodically carry stories of informal manufacturers being raided by the police when an adulterated batch causes illness or death. Contaminated or not, the ultra high octane proof of punta can actually kill you if you are careless about the amount you are drinking. Punta's formulation and effect are very much like moonshine made in the US. The story is that cane growers, from the very beginning, fed their laborers the drink so they would not feel the extreme fatigue of working in the cane fields. Many early landowners even paid workers with it.

Party time with guarapo made from panela and lime
For those who like their drinks without a strong kick, fresh sugarcane juice or hot water infused with panela can be made into a delightful local guarapo which includes a squeeze of lime or orange. Guarapo is a generic term for an infused drink in south and central America. Even coffee is referred to as guarapo in some countries. Lojano-style guarapo of fresh cane juice with a citrus squeeze is a true delight that is not to be missed. For those brave souls who have no fear, there is Lojano guarapo con punto (fresh citrus and cane juice with punto), which is the hard version of this drink with home-distilled cane alcohol mixed in.

Any questions about sugary goodies in Loja, don’t hesitate to contact “Life in Loja” on Facebook. We’d love to know what you are thinking!


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