Venezuela’s economic crisis a boon for traditional liquor

BOBARE (Venezuela): Venezuela's traditional cocuy liquor is making a comeback due to the country's punishing economic crisis, which has put rum, whiskey and even beer financially out of reach for many.

Agave – which grows in the semi-arid mountains of Bobare and is the main ingredient in cocuy – has been used in Venezuela since before the Spanish conquest, and it is being kept alive by liquor artisans such as 84-year-old Dolores Gimenez.

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He began producing cocuy at the age of seven in the eastern state of Lara, but just a few "small jars that were well hidden".

"If the police found you with cocuy, they put you in jail and smashed your distillation cylinders," he said at his still.

Since those days, Gimenez – who has 25 children and 103 grandchildren – has refined the process and now provides joy to those who have seen their favorite alcoholic beverages disappear out of reach thanks to inflation that the International Monetary Fund predicts will hit 200,000 per cent in 2019.

"It's three years since I touched a beer," Nelson Vargas, 66, said bitterly.

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His pension is barely worth the equivalent of US$3 a month – the price of just two beers.

"Few people drink it. Not us poor," said Vargas, sipping cocuy as a procession of the Virgin of Guadeloupe passes.

"MIGRATING" CONSUMERS

Liquor consumption fell 34 per cent this year, according to London-based alcoholic beverage analysts IWSR. It also fell 37 per cent in 2018.

Beer consumption fell by 39 per cent in 2018.

It's little surprise given that Venezuela's gross domestic product has shrunk by half since 2013.

Agave – which grows in the semi-arid mountains of Bobare and is the main ingredient in cocuy – has been used in Venezuela since before the Spanish conquest and is being kept alive by liquor artisans AFP/CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ

Consumers "are migrating from traditional drinks like beer and rum to cheaper spirits like rum derivatives or aguardiente", said Carlos Salazar, president of the Chamber of Liquors in the capital Caracas, where sales are down 50 per cent this year.

In 1998, a minimum salary could buy 46 cases of beer, but now, you would need five such salaries to purchase just one.

But the search for cheaper alternatives can be deadly.

One monitor says there have been 30 deaths in 2019 from drinking alcoholic concoctions.

There was once a time when whiskey was practically Venezuela's national beverage, even relegating traditional rums – considered some of the best in the world – into its shadow.

Whiskey consumption exploded with the arrival of foreign oil companies around a century ago and even became a status symbol in a country that has the largest proven crude reserves in the world.

In 2014, Venezuela was the second highest per capita consumer of whiskey in Latin America.

In some restaurants, whiskey bottles stood on tables like water or wine.

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