Why you should care
This warming cocktail from the Andean highlands is a delightfully boozy party drink.
Year-round in Quito, Ecuador, the days are hot and the nights chilly. (That’s what happens when you’re 9,000 feet above sea level and on the equator.) It’s no surprise, then, that for an evening’s tipple quiteños (residents of the city) turn to something warm when the temperature drops: canelazo.
Popular among mountain-dwelling Ecuadorians (and Peruvians and Colombians), the sweet and spicy alcoholic beverage is relatively unknown outside of the Andean highlands. So if you want to spice up your holiday party, try this snazzed-up version of a hot toddy. Infused with boiled cinnamon, sugar, spices and citrus juice, it’s likely to have guests asking, “What is this?” before swiftly requesting another glass.
The magic ingredient in the canelazo is aguardiente (sugar cane liquor) — quite unlike whiskey or bourbon, the base for a hot toddy. If you can’t get your hands on this dry spirit, sub in another clear liquor like grappa or Brazilian cachaça or even potato vodka, suggests quiteño bartender Marcelo Hernández.
To create the most authentic version of the Ecuadorian cocktail, you’ll also want to find some naranjilla, an acidic citrus fruit that tastes like a combination of an orange and a tangerine and looks vaguely like a tomato. Frozen naranjilla is sold in many Latin grocery stores, but in a pinch, Hernández says, an orange could also work. Passion fruit and blackberries are other common options.
A warning to first-timers: The canelazo can pack a punch.
Of course, if you want to sip the real thing in its native setting, head to Quito. Available at street stalls and in bars and restaurants, the canelazo is especially popular from the end of November, when the Fiestas de Quito (parties celebrating Quito’s founding) begin, until early January. “It’s like a whole month of Mardi Gras. The Christmas spirit just keeps going and everybody is celebrating — and drinking canelazo,” says Hernández, who has been a bartender at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar for the past “37 years and 13 days.”
A warning to first-timers: The canelazo can pack a punch. Aguardiente is typically only 29 percent alcohol, less than other distilled spirits. However, it’s added to the drink to order, meaning the alcohol content can range from just a nip to a dangerously strong pour.
I had my first canelazo one evening on La Ronda, a street in Quito’s Centro Histórico, a touristy yet still-charming neighborhood — and one of the best places to find the warming beverage. Picture yourself wandering cobblestone streets that lead past pastel-painted buildings with wrought-iron balconies flanked by flowering geraniums. (If that doesn’t put you in the mood to imbibe the local spirits, the evening chill will.) A generous pour of the warm, cinnamony, Christmas-in-a-cup goodness will set you back about $1 to $2, depending on how much alcohol you ask for.
Canelazo has been part of Ecuador’s fabric for centuries. Over a hundred years ago, La Ronda was a bustling bohemian neighborhood of poets, prostitutes and activists — and canelazo — but by the late 20th century the area had become overcrowded and dangerous at night; in 1987 an earthquake further reduced the neighborhood. In the 2000s, when La Ronda was revitalized, “it become tourist central, which meant the whole world began to sell canelazo here again,” says César Coronel, who has been selling the drink at his shop, El Sabrosón de la Ronda, one of the most popular spots on the street, for 11 years. His concoction is infused with anise and allspice and cooked in a traditional clay pot. “People try mine and come back for more the next day,” Coronel says proudly.
Want to wow and warm your guests at your holiday party? Here is Coronel’s recipe for a warm cup of spiked, spiced bliss. Don’t say I never gave you anything.
This version of César Coronel’s recipe makes about 1 liter (4 to 5 servings).
- 5 naranjillas (or 4 to 5 passion fruit or 2 to 3 oranges)
- 3 whole cloves (or ½ teaspoon ground cloves)
- 2 whole allspice berries (or ½ teaspoon ground allspice)
- 1 whole star anise (or ¼ teaspoon star anise seeds)
- ½ cup cane sugar or brown sugar
- Clear alcohol of choice
- 3 cinnamon sticks
Peel fruit and blend with 1 cup water in a food processor or blender. Strain to remove seeds.
Put fruit mash, spices and sugar in a medium pot with about 5 cups water. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.
Ladle liquid into clear glass mugs and add alcohol to taste. For a weak canelazo, add 1 ounce of alcohol to each serving; for a standard one, 1.5 ounces (or a shot glass worth of alcohol); for a strong one, 2 ounces. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.