In Bolivia, it’s common to see working-class folks drinking an illegal cocktail called Casquito (a mix of pure alcohol used for medical purposes and soft drinks or juices). The name translates to Little Helmet, describing the blue cap that the alcohol comes with, but I think it better describes the casket you may end up in after consuming the potent cocktail. And while that all sounds like an awesome experiment to undertake, that’s not the purpose of our stop in the country. So, let’s spin the wheel and learn about… the coca leaf!
Coca leaves are a cash crop for a number of South American countries, but are perhaps most notable in Bolivia, where they have played a role in the nation’s democracy, including the rise of the Cocalero Movement and that group’s leader, Evo Morales, becoming president of Bolivia in 2005. The movement was established in 1987 as the United States worked to crack down on drugs coming into the country.
As a result of the United States’ war on drugs, attempts to eliminate the coca leaf from existence have occurred with varying results. The Cocaleros have set-up blockades, attempted to write their own law proposals, and protest marches against the eradication of the plant. This has caused deaths, arrests, fights between growers and opposing forces, and even the Villa Tunari Massacre, which saw 16 Cocaleros murdered.
With Morales in power, new laws are being created and considered, with the elimination of the plant being scaled back. While other crops (coffee and citrus fruits) were offered in exchange for getting rid of coca operations, the profit return was dramatically less than farmers could get from their coca production and I’d be pissed too, if someone all of a sudden came in and told me I couldn’t make something that my family had been creating for years and surviving from.
Coca is also commonly used in medicines, usually in anesthetics and analgesics, providing relief from headaches, altitude sickness, and arthritis. In Bolivia, it is also used by locals to treat ulcers, asthma, digestion, and even malaria. Chewing on the leaves, or using them in teas will not provide similar results to using the drug cocaine. Although the same leaves do provide the psychoactive alkaloid for cocaine, it can only be removed through a chemical process known as acid/base extraction.
Throughout Bolivia and other coca manufacturing countries, teas, granola bars, cookies, hard candies, and other items are sold in grocery markets. It is an ingredient in Agwa, the herbal spirit that we will be using during our pit stop in Bolivia. Most infamously, the coca leaf was used in the production of Coca-Cola from 1885 to 1929 and a similar product is used to this day, with the cocaine element removed from the plant.
The coca leaf is illegal in Brazil and Paraguay. In the United States, only one company brings the plant into the country (although others are registered to do so). The Stepan Company receives hundreds of tons of coca leaf each year, turning some of it into pure cocaine for medical use and the rest as a cocaine-free flavouring agent for Coca-Cola.
- 1 oz Agwa
- 1 oz Gin
- 0.25 oz Cointreau
- Top with Cranberry Juice
- Splash of Sour Mix
- Garnish with Cranberries
I’ve never been a big Coca-Cola fan, preferring my mixers to come in the form of Pepsi or Dr. Pepper, but it would be interesting to take a trip (perhaps literally) in the ‘way back machine’ to a time when the soda contained drugs. I’m sure you’d have to down copious amounts of the pop to get any effect, but it might be an experiment worth undertaking!
Sip Advisor Bar Notes (4 Sips out of 5):
Mrs. Sip and I were lucky to stumble upon some mini bottles of Agwa in the Iceland Airport Duty Free, of all places. The Coca Leaf Liqueur is light and has a nice smell and taste to it. I absolutely love the name of this cocktail and it was very tasty with the Gin kicking in at the end of each sip. I had hoped to garnish the drink with a coca leaf, but no such luck.