Published July 22, 2011
Cocaine inspires illicit images of the the go-go 1980s, but the psychoactive properties of the coca leaf go farther back than the days of Crockett and Tubbs. Mankind has used and cultivated coca for millennia, chewing on the leaves for either a mild buzz or to help fight off altitude sickness and even brewing narcotic beverages from it.
Coca-Cola started out in the 19th century as a copy of a French coca beverage called Vin Mariani that was all the rage among the bohemian Parisian artist set. It was only after prohibition laws started being passed that the namesake leaves were left out of the formulation. Now there's only one coca beverage on the market – Agwa de Bolivia. And yes, of course they strip out the cocaine.
“Only .05% of the coca leaf that is the cocaine is removed,” says company representative Chuck Giometti. “Customers who drink it will not test dirty and their jobs are not at risk.”
Agwa de Bolivia is made from coca leaf shipped under armed guard from Bolivia to Amsterdam, where it's stripped of the psychoactive cocaine compounds before being added to the mix, distilled and bottled. It's a bright green elixir, reminiscent of some of the newer absinthes on the market, but that's where the similarities stop. Where absinthe has brutal levels of alcohol, as high as 130 proof in some cases, Agwa de Bolivia falls in at half that. It's gently sweet, with a heavily herbal and grassy flavor and a lemony citrus aftertaste – not particularly surprising given that one of the primary ingredients is a leaf. But it's that leaf that makes what’s in this bottle different than other liqueurs.
Since only the cocaine is removed from the coca leaf, leaving the other alkaloids untouched, Agwa de Bolivia produces a few odd effects. First, it offers up a strange numbing sensation in the back of the mouth. And with a surprisingly small amount it provides a bit of an energetic buzz. Since the distiller was kind enough to add guarana and ginseng to the mix it's hard to say whether those are coca effects, ancient Chinese herbal wisdom or simply the psychosomatic effects of drinking booze billed as the product of coca leaves.
Not surprisingly, Agwa de Bolivia has run into a few issues along the way. Taiwan and Germany have proven to be especially problematic. Despite the denaturing process, the spirit still has trace amounts of cocaine in it, leading Taiwan to seize cases of the stuff and Germany to pull it from the market as well. It would take a few hundred bottles to experience any cocaine-based effect, so anyone would be long dead from alcohol poisoning by then. But countries with especially stringent laws against narcotics seem to have it in for Agwa. Even here the bottles haven't made their way across all 50 states, though whether that's a result of resistance from state regulators or simply byzantine liquor laws and distribution networks is another story.
“Agwa de Bolivia is hard to get thanks to the corporate atmosphere of today’s .com world,” said Giometti. “But Agwa is available in some fashion on 32 US states. Agwa sells very well in Australia too. Those Aussies know something that we Yanks have yet to discover.”
Of course, the biggest question of all would seem to be how to drink it. The brains behind Agwa encourage adding lime or other citrus to the spirit to “open up the alkaloids,” claiming it intensifies their effects. Your mileage may vary, but if nothing else the bracing tartness of the lime pairs up nicely with the sweet green taste of the liqueur. And while the majority of Agwa de Bolivia seems to be mixed up with Red Bull and other energy drinks, it also shines in more complex shooters and full-scale cocktails with equal ease. Here are a few to smuggle in to the home bar:
Agwa Cucumber Mojito
Using the sweet Agwa liqueur to replace sugar in a mojito is a fairly slick move that adds some intriguing complexity to this minty summer drink. The cucumber and lime freshens it up even more and those coca alkaloids add that odd numbing quality that, strangely enough, make the drink seem that much more refreshing on a hot day.
• 2 oz. Agwa de Bolivia
• 2 oz. white or light rum (DonQ Cristal is a Cuban style rum tailor-made for mojitos and a steal at $10 for a bottle)
• 2-3 cucumber slices
• 2 lime wedges
• 1 mint sprig
Add cucumber, limes and mint to the bottom of a shaker and muddle together with a muddler or back of a spoon. Add ice and spirits and shake until ice cold. Strain into a tall ice-filled glass garnished with a mint sprig. Or if you like your mojito a bit chunkier, pour the works into an empty tall glass without straining.
The addition of soda water changes Agwa de Bolivia’s flavor dramatically. Those citrus aftertastes dominate with the green herbal notes fading into the background and becoming briskly spicy. It’s an incredibly simple cocktail to make, but definitely a crowd-pleaser and ice breaker as the numbing sensation becomes a cool, almost minty impression. Plus, it’s an easy recipe to remember when you’ve already had one or two.
• 2 oz. Agwa de Bolivia
• 1 oz. soda water (not tonic – the quinine in the tonic will make the cocktail seem far too bitter)
• 2 lime wedges
Fill a lowball glass with ice and squeeze the limes into it, dropping them in after the juice. Add Agwa and soda and stir gently. You can even make batches with simple multiplication. Just don’t try to do the math after you’ve had a few.
A bizarre marriage, Agwa de Bolivia and a sweeter whiskey like Jack Daniels makes a great match. The warmth of the whiskey mellows the sweet herbal liqueur and transforms that numbing sensation into a bizarrely satisfying tingle. Plus, the dark whiskey disguises the lurid green Agwa. Because no matter how tasty the stuff is, downing a shot of whiskey looks infinitely more badass.
• 1 oz. Agwa de Bolivia
• 1 oz. Jack Daniels or other sweet whiskey
Pour the whiskey and Agwa into lowball or oversized shot glass and pour it down the hatch. Keep a close eye on how often you repeat the process though – these have a tendency to sneak up on you!