How Rum and Cocuy Came Back to Life During the Crisis

Thanks to the denominations of origin that protect their ancestral quality and technical standards, these two drinks endure Venezuela’s economic downfall and illicit competition

As real as the liquor market crisis is, two Venezuelan liquors manage to avoid that same crisis: Pecaya cocuy and rum. And all while complying with the rules and regulations by which the Servicio Autónomo de Propiedad Intelectual (SAPI) gave them the Denomination of Origin (DO); cocuy pecayero got it in 2001 and rum in 2003.

With this top-tier distinction on intellectual property, producers stick to the traditional and standard techniques when manufacturing these liquors, as well as the environmental care in their production areas. This way, the original product seal indicates that the Pecaya cocuy and rum are unique, one-of-a-kind, high quality, culturally valued, and especially, Venezuelan products.

A Secret Between Us 

Now, cocuy surfaces as a luxury item. But the story behind the ancestral Venezuelan alcoholic beverage includes foreign enemies, a State that doesn’t understand the legislation, and a group of people who took it upon themselves to keep it from being lost.

It’s said that cocuy was the preferred drink in mid-western Venezuela, until the Venezuelan industrialization process brought in foreign consumer patterns— mainly whisky—and artisanal producers began losing sales since they didn’t have a “sophisticated” or mass production, nor advertising or marketing.

This is how demand for cocuy began to decline, and in 1954, another bitter pill to swallow: a wrong technical interpretation about this liquor entered the Ley de Impuestos sobre Licores y Especies Alcohólicas (Liquor and Alcoholic Species Tax Law) that same year. According to this law, cocuy is a liquor made from the fermented musts of the agave plant (juices extracted from the milling) which have to be aged, for at least, two years in white oak barrels. In other words, the law established that the agave alcohol had to follow the same preparation as sugar cane alcohol. The thing is that you don’t age cocuy. But that wasn’t the only mistake. Miriam Díaz, creator and coordinator of Programa Agave Cocuy, explains:

“The law defined cocuy as a sugar cane spirit, when in reality, it’s the opposite: an agave liquor which could have up to twenty percent of sugar content.”

Third, the law stated that, to have a production permit, the cocuy producer had to make twenty five thousand liters per year. When the industry couldn’t comply with any of the three conditions, cocuy went on to become an illegal liquor, and it became a cheap drunk’s booze and low-grade drink.

However, they never stopped making it. Thank God, because today a certified bottle from Pecaya is way more than a pre-Columbine recipe or the original one for the coecoi liquor from Aruba. Pecayero cocuy is considered the “true Venezuelan liquor” (rum was invented in Barbados) and its raw ingredient, the Agave cocuy species, has a Venezuelan Natural, Cultural and Ancestral Heritage status. It’s because of cocuy that Venezuela is one of three countries that make agave distillations, along with Mexico’s tequila, and Ecuador’s miske.

Today, the quality rule COVENIN 3662:2001 preserves the manufacturing techniques in the way it has always been done in Pecaya: the stalk is cut at its top to be cooked in an oven dug in the ground, it’s crushed with guayacan wood utensils, it’s squeezed with natural water from the area, and the juice is then fermented. No artificial yeasts or non-white sugar are used.

Of course, there’s more to it than just mastering it.

Díaz explains: “Pecaya, in the highlands of Falcón, has very special micro-climatic characteristics: there’s a humid sac within the dry area, because it has a waterfall from spring waters and highly alkaline grounds, so much so that the clay is white. The temperature at night goes down to twenty one degrees Celsius and during the day, up to forty seven; the result of this temperature difference is that the sugars have a different metabolism and a different bouquet.” 

So when nature and technique are combined, it results in a liquor which, in its purest form, can stand next to a twelve-year-old whisky without batting an eye, even if there isn’t mass production yet, because when you talk about a DOC Pecayero cocuy, you talk about only twelve brands, those which belong to the Asociación de Fabricantes Artesanales de Cocuy (ASOFACOCUY).

Yes. No more than three hundred liters per year, or no more than seven hundred bottles with a health certificate and even a CPE code, the only one in Venezuela that shows the real contents of the jarred product. Seven hundred bottles that, according to Díaz, are distributed in the country, mostly in Caracas, to be consumed at once, to be aged for two years, let rest for up to six months in white American oak barrels, or macerate with fruit. Cocuy is no longer an export product because, as Díaz points out, that was until the 1954 law came in.

Now, “artisans are signing the bottles with the lot and bottle number so people aren’t scammed, and they’re investing in the artisanship of the packaging, because in terms of quality, they already have it,” Díaz goes on. “We teach to recognize it and taste it as a delicacy: if it smells of papelón or any other molasses, then it’s not cocuy, but an adulteration made with juices and molasses to which they add a half-baked stalk… from a seven hundred milliliter bottle you can pour twenty two shots, and by the second shot, you’re already satisfied.” 

So the liquor mixed in the deadly guarapas so prevalent in Venezuela’s popular areas, probably use what they call fake cocuy. And yes, this adulteration often goes to other countries because of consumers’ ignorance.

Well Made in Venezuela

The twelve national rum companies which make the fifty four groups in the Fondo de Promoción de Ron de Venezuela (FONPROVEN) are the ones with the Controlled Designation of Origin and, according to Lucía Alliegro, marketing manager for Ron Carúpano, not only do they try to age it in oak barrels for at least two years without replacing the evaporated alcohol to end up with a final product of, at least, forty percent:

“To keep the DOC,” she emphasizes, “the sugar cane has to come from or be produced in the Venezuelan states that belong to the DOC (Aragua, Barinas, Carabobo, Cojedes, Lara, Miranda, Monagas, Portuguesa, Sucre, Táchira, Trujillo, Yaracuy and Zulia) and, above all, the workers have to be Venezuelan. Venezuelan rum is made on Venezuelan soil.” And, contrary to popular belief, it can be aged in French oak barrels, or ones already used for wine. Each brand has its own way, but the inside has to be local and without added sugar. That doesn’t change.

But since the rum demand is much higher than that of cocuy, it’s hard to keep up with the scientific tradition and the art of rum making according to the COVENIN-RON 3040-93 rules, and it’s even harder to keep the DOC label. As a result of this, among many other reasons, we’ve seen the proliferation of liquors aged for two to six months in tanks where they add pieces of wood; in other words, firewater, white booze, and rum liquor. Unknown blends are also common, like the ones sold by Wilmer, the owner of a liquor store located in southwestern Caracas, who asked to remain anonymous:

“Those rums that aren’t rum are popular among the younger crowd, because they cost between two and five dollars, and even if I tell them it’s the bagasse, they don’t care and we have to sell it because we’re in a crisis and we don’t want to go broke.” 

But, as Alliegro says, those who really like rum buy the rum they like, it doesn’t matter if it’s in fashion or if it’s the most expensive one: “Venezuelans are well versed in rum, they can recognize it and spread it here and in other countries, they’re great patrons and ambassadors of a product made in Venezuela.” 

This is exciting, especially for Destilería Carúpano, in whose land Ron Añejo was produced; the first rum made in Venezuela and one of the first to be exported. After seventy medals awarded in international competitions, Ron Carúpano is considered “Venezuela’s most famous rum.” So, as Alliegro says, it’s not uncommon to find a Venezuelan in Greece, explaining to a Greek person in their own language, what rum is and where the state of Sucre is located. The same could occur in Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Luxembourg, Switzerland and in each country where a rum-drinking Venezuelan resides.

Today, Venezuelan rums lead the consumer preference in national and global markets, because it’s more than just quality. Maybe because it’s the drink we use to celebrate, because it soothes nostalgia and fends off sadness, or because it’s a heritage drink that allows us to feel the same pride as Mexicans feel for tequila or the French feel for cognac. Maybe because we still believe that we can do something right in spite of the hardships.