Updated: Nov 1
It’s not every day that I discover a new sugar cane juice based alcoholic beverage. That’s exactly what happened the last time I was in Colombia. My partner is from this beautiful country, so we visit it on a fairly regular basis. I’m always trying as much rum as I can when there, even though I’m usually not much of a fan of whatever I can find. My excitement for rum is very high, but in Colombia it’s typically on an average level. That changed when I visited gorgeous Cartagena. At some point during my stay I ended up in a rum bar. I tried several Colombian expressions, the usual boring Dictador and friends. Just before we left, my partner pointed at a bottle and asked what it was. The lovely bartender said “Viche”. What is Viche?? She explained it as an unaged sugar cane juice distillate. I was super intrigued right away. Let’s try this! The first one looked like a professional bottling with a proper label on it, called Monte Manglar. 39% alcohol. Damn! Why always so low in Colombia?! The answer I usually get is: “the taxes are too high on alcohol”. It smelt and tasted rather good, albeit watery. The second viche was labeled as 700ml, but was in a massive jug. Clearly, what was written on the bottle didn’t match what was inside the bottle. That increased the curiosity of course. I needed to know more about this viche. The bartender told us that these are mom and pop distilleries, with all sorts of stills in backyards. First thing I thought of when she said that was Haiti’s Clairin. Before I left the bar I bought a couple of bottles of the 39% viche to take home.
From that moment on, the search for Viche started. That same night we found another bar with several viche expressions, including some spiced and flavoured ones. The next day, lucky for me, Renato Molo contacted me. Turns out he’s a rum enthusiast from Switzerland and founder of the rum and chocolate tastings activity at Caffé Lunatico, Cartagena. He mentioned he was following Rum Revelations for a while now, which was nice to hear. We started chatting about viche, which he knows a lot about. The viche gods were clearly on my side. He pointed me in some directions where I could find more expressions, which was great. Unfortunately we couldn’t meet up, as I was already leaving the city. Eventually, the viche hunt continued in Bogota. Tried a few stores where they had never even heard of viche. At the fifth store we hit the jackpot. They must have had 8 different expressions AND I could taste some in the shop. Wonderful! Ended up buying three bottles there.
Finding more information about viche is a bit challenging for someone who doesn’t speak Spanish well. The info is there, albeit not in massive quantities, but it’s all in Spanish. I literally have 38 random pages in Word about viche, some of them not making much sense after translating them. So, I could spend 6 weeks on this article (it actually took me 9 months, spending time on it here and there), or I can take some of the highlights and create an introduction article instead of a reference article. Keep in mind that there is likely no true standard way of producing viche (yet). Which means the production info I’m sharing in this article could be valid for one, five or twenty producers, while fifty others are using different methods. This is a little frustrating when looking for information, as bits and pieces will be missing, but at the same time it’s the beauty of a spirit that hasn’t been researched much outside of the community where it’s made.
Viche is made in the Colombian Pacific area. Its origin is uncertain, but it’s said to be 300 years old and is connected to the enslaved black communities that arrived on the Colombian coast in the 16th century. Most of it is produced in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, but also in other areas along the Pacific coast. The Vichero Cultural Landscape, which covers an area of about 79,192 km2, gathers areas of five departments along the coast: Antioquia, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Valle del Cauca, and approximately 34 municipalities. It is estimated that 10 to 15% of the local communities live off Viche. The name Viche/Biche comes from the Bantu languages of East-Central Africa where it means green or raw.
On September 15 2021, the Colombian congress approved a bill which recognizes viche as an ancestral, traditional beverage and collective heritage of the Afro-Colombian communities of the Pacific coast. It’s part of their cultural identity. The bill is meant to protect the intellectual property and production of this drink. It will regulate certain production standards, trademark registrations and to make sure production continues to be done only by the communities of the Pacific coast. Of course it opens the doors for them to start working with partners to commercialize this product. The government can start promoting it and set up educational programs for the production of viche, including the financial, administrative and marketing side of the business.
Viche used to be made to be consumed straight or as a medicinal drink to help women recover from child birth. The knowledge surrounding child birth and viche are closely connected. Techniques that have been passed on from mothers to their daughters. Viche has infinite medicinal uses and is an integral part of the Afro-Pacific traditional and magical religious system. Other claimed benefits are to treat fertility problems, cholesterol issues, glycemia, cure snake bites and it’s seen as an aphrodisiac. Nowadays there are all sorts of viches mixed with local herbs and fruits and cream variants. The recent cream expressions apparently improve brain activity! Wow! An alcoholic beverage that doesn’t kill brain cells but improves brain activity instead! This is quite the find! Someone should patent this and become a billionaire! A much older recipe is "vinete", a viche drink mixed with honey from panela, cloves and cinnamon.
Viche production and knowledge traditionally has been in the hands and minds of women mostly. Men used to work the fields. However, in recent years, this has been shifting somewhat.
The sugar cane that viche is made of is mostly planted on the edges of rivers. Viche is made by cutting sugar cane that hasn’t fully matured and grinding it to extract the juice. In a lot of cases, the cane grinding is still done manually with a roller. Four or five people can be needed to operate the grinder by hand. In some instances the cane juice is boiled right after the grinding. The juice is then fermented (yeast is added) and at this stage it is called guarapo, which can sit in plastic tanks for 12 to 15 days before it is distilled. That’s a pretty long fermentation! In some cases, clay pots are used as vessels for the guarapo. These pots are lined with beeswax to make sure they are sealed. This wax is also used to seal certain parts of the stills. Distilling is done in all sorts of batch (pot)stills, which can be made of copper and aluminum. Decades ago the pots were sometimes made ouf of clay.
Among the varieties of cane, those who work with them say that the species from the Valley are of higher yield compared to the varieties of black and yellow cane that occur in other regions. In several places that cane is known as "interiorana" or "abode", and in places like Sivirú as "Caña Salomón". Viche can also be made from panela, which is hardened sugar cane juice and very common in Colombia. I can personally attest to panela tea being tasty!
50 years ago, when viche production was prosecuted, the liquor would be stored in glass demijohns and buried in the ground, with just the top sticking out, so it could be found again.
In Soledad Curay, viche is also known as charuco. Over there they have been using cane variety POJ2878 since 1935. It’s the variety that has adapted best for the production of Viche because of its high sugar content. It has been untouched/not mixed with any other type of cane. They cut the cane by hand with a machete, then grind it for a period of max 72 hours, using a mechanical grinder that’s pulled by an animal. Two filtration processes are used. First for floating solids then for non-floating solids. The juice then goes into a tank for fermentation before distillation. The distillate is left to “age” (rest is probably a better term) between 1 to 3 months. They bottle it at an abv according to the market they are selling it in, which is usually high 30s. Locals are saying you can’t really industrialize this process, because it’s handmade at such a level, you’d lose a lot of the characteristics.
As you can tell, there is no viche handbook. Every producer will do things slightly different. However, I think the above information provides a general indication of what it’s like.
To make it more visual, here are a couple of videos showing the production process and facilities:
Since I bought a few viche expressions, I figured I might as well do a tasting with them and include it with this article.
Viche Monte Manglar - 39%
Viche Vibora - 35%
Viche Bantura - 35%
Viche Bailadores - 40%
Figs, dried fruit, citrus, raisins, sugar cane, fresh and fruity with a dusty/musty note in the back. It has two sides to it in that sense.
Red fruits and grapes, apples, light pickle, dill, creamy, compost. Reminds me a bit of an agave spirit.
Lager…as in beer, molasses, light vinegar, pickle, meaty.
Rice cakes, vinegar…..I’m getting a gag reflex. Surely, nobody drinks this.
Similar to the nose, fruity with a musty under current. Watery. Light black pepper, mint, pine, light earth, raisins, nutmeg. Has real potential.
Agave, very watery, light smoke, dill pickle, compost, mushroom, citrus, molasses…it’s slightly sour. It’s interesting. If one can speak of a finish, this is a bit longer lasting than Monte Manglar.
Tastes better than the nose suggests. Ginger, mint, it’s on the sweet side, meaty, light earth.
Rice cakes soaked in vinegar with smoked meat in the background. Horrid. Almost undrinkable. Difficult to get past the nose to begin with.
The differences between these expressions are big, similar to Clairin in that sense. You have no idea what you are getting yourself into when you buy these bottles. That’s a good thing to some and a no no for others. If you are adventurous, then you need to start hunting down some Viche. The major downside of this category is the abv. 40% is the highest I’ve seen so far, which is too low to excite the serious rum enthusiasts. For sipping it’s pretty watery, if you are used to drinking higher abv spirits. I made a daiquiri with Monte Manglar and it disappeared for the most part, so daiquiri purists might love it. The other concern has to do with production standards. I’m not sure there are any. Which means you don’t know what you are drinking from a quality and health perspective.
I’m hoping the producers, investors and the Colombian government understand that there is an enormous appetite for this kind of spirit on the international market, as long as they increase the abv. High 40s to mid 50s will do the trick. The global success of Clairin shows the possibilities. I for one would love to taste the Monte Manglar, Vibora and Bantura at 50%. They could be stunning! I can be short about the Bailadores. I’m not a cocktail pro, but even if I was, I don’t think I’d know what to do with it. As a sipper it’s undrinkable, getting the lowest score I’ve ever given to a drink on this website (together with Millonario 10).
There are a ton of different Viche expressions on the market, if you look in the right places. From pure to spiced to Viche creams. I’ve had a few of the spiced versions and wasn’t a fan. However, I don’t adore spiced rums either, so I’m likely not the best judge. The most important thing about Viche is that it’s truly Colombian. Cane to bottle. This can’t be said for most Colombian rum, as I talked about in this article. In that sense it’s a true heritage product that the country can be proud of. I’m looking forward to seeing the progress of Viche, including if and how they are going to set more production standards, so that consumers can have confidence in what they are buying. Rum nerds should start checking it out before it becomes more main stream, as it’s fascinating.
Monte Manglar – 62
Vibora – 57
Bantura – 58
Bailadores – 10
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