Tiquira - Gastro Obscura



This violet-hued liquor is Brazil's oldest spirit.

Indigenous Brazilians have fermented alcoholic beverages from the cassava root for thousands of years. These beer-like beverages go by names like cauim, caxiri, and tarubá. Fermentation is an important step in cassava processing—the raw root has chemicals that can turn into cyanide in the human body. Native peoples found that a bit of human saliva and some naturally occurring yeast could eliminate these toxins and improve the nutritious value of the tuber. When the technology of distillation arrived to the Munim River region (now in Maranhão), locals who already drank lightly alcoholic cassava beverages began to distill them. Tiquira was born. 

The name tiquira is likely derived from the Tupi word tykyre meaning “to drip.” But it is a curiosity that the spirit has flourished in only one Brazilian state, Maranhão. Margot Stinglwagner, founder of Guaaja Tiquira, the first modern brand to produce the spirit starting in 2016, says “It’s a spirit that is also unknown in Brazil. A few people have heard about tiquira—but usually only people who have gone to Maranhão once.” Accordingly, the state moved to declare the spirit as a piece of Cultural and Intangible Heritage in September 2023

Part of the reason that tiquira has remained so isolated is that cachaça, Brazil’s rum, is far easier to produce. Because the rum comes from sugarcane, the sugar for fermentation is already there. “With cassava, you don’t have sugar,” Stinglwagner explains. “You must first transform the carbohydrates into sugar and then you can ferment and distill it.” To achieve this end, Guaaja Tiquira uses food enzymes instead of the traditional human saliva. Guaaja also differs from other distillers because they use full cassava roots where most tiquira moonshiners rely on processed farinha de mandioca, or cassava flour. 

“The majority of people produce it illegally,” laughs Stinglwagner. “The state does nothing about it.” Outside of the urban center, tiquira is invariably a homemade product. Generally, tiquira makers don’t separate the “heads” (the first drops of liquor from a distillation, which contain harsher alcohols including toxic methanol and other pungent and volatile flavor compounds) from the “tails” (the final liquid produced from distillation, which has a low alcohol content and can have unwelcome bitter flavors), meaning the spirit is stronger and may contain more toxins and impurities. Some even macerate marijuana into the combined spirit to produce the doubly-illicit tiquiconha.

Maranhenses believe that you cannot get wet or bathe after drinking tiquira, lest you become faint or dizzy. Zelinda Machado de Castro e Lima, one of the great chroniclers of folk culture in Maranhão, has recorded other traditions surrounding the drink. Firstly, it is typical to pierce a cashew with a toothpick and soak it in a glass of tiquira for several hours. It is then sucked as a sort of boozy lollipop. She also writes about the belief that those drinking coffee should avoid tiquira, while locals say that fishermen on the coast used the liquor to sanitize wounds incurred on the job. 

Finally, there is the curious question of the color of tiquira. In the tourist markets of São Luís, the spirit is always blushing a translucent violet. “They say that the color of tiquira is from tangerine leaves, but we tried to do it and the color from the leaves is not stable,” says Stinglwagner. “It is also not a strong color. The norms and laws for tiquira prohibit the addition of the leaves.” The violet color may be artificial (perhaps from food dyes), but some tiquiras do have a citrusy flavor. 

Tiquira today is still largely relegated to the world of moonshining, but with the government’s recognition of the spirit and new legitimate ventures like that of Guaaja Tiquira, Brazil could be seeing more of the cassava liquor outside of its home in Maranhão. 

“All the people say to me, ‘What is this new spirit?,’” says Stinglwagner. “I say, ‘It’s not a new spirit, it’s the oldest spirit from Brazil.’”

Know Before You Go

Tiquira is widely available in the downtown markets of São Luís, Maranhão. Both the local Mercado Central and touristic Mercado das Tulhas have many vendors selling tiquira. The commercial brand, Guaaja Tiquira, is also available in São Luís at Empório Fribal, in addition to Copacabana Palace and Fairmont Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, and Mocotó Bar e Restaurante in São Paulo. 

Written By
N NC Stevens