We went to Lima last week. I’ll probably write something about it at some point, after I’ve had time to digest the last of the ceviche and the feelings and stuff.
What I want to talk about now (for a change) is booze. [Obligatory food-and-drink-piece-meaningless-generalization]: Thanks to the cocktail resurgence of the past 15 years or so, people seem more than ever to be up to discovering new liquors. Gin is showing its boundless flavor possibilities, fruit and herb liquers are gaining traction, tequila and Irish whiskey have emerged from the ghetto of shooters with strong showings as delectable sipping and mixing spirits, mezcal has gone from scary-worm-booze to delightful artisanal tipple. It only makes sense that pisco, the unaged grape brandy that is the national spirit of TWO South American countries, would come on board.
Some of the good stuff. Pisco puro quebrantas.
Brazil has the caipirinha, Argentina has Fernet and coke, and Peru has the pisco sour. Chile also has the pisco sour, although the spirit is different, and the drink recipe is different, and there is all this contention over who invented it, but you know what? I only went to Peru. And I prefer Peruvian pisco, it turns out. Peruvians are hard-asses about pisco production: it can only be made from eight types of grapes, it has to be made without adding any water, meaning it’s once distilled to proof. THIS MEANS that pisco from Peru is all grape juice; fermented into wine and then distilled ONE TIME into a clear eau-de-vie (or aguardientes) that lands…BOOM…into the bottle at around 80 proof.
Think about it this way: vodka is generally distilled five times. This makes it the most neutral of neutral spirits, taking out all the “impurities” (aka things that impart flavor) through a shit-ton of boiling and condensing. Whiskey is distilled two or three times and aged in wood casks to add flavor and color (I like to think of brown spirits as wood-infused. In a good way.). Pisco gets one trip through the still, then rests in non-reactive containers. So all you’re tasting is the grapes and the yeast. Depending on the grapes used and the production style, it can be super clean and silky or it can be real fiery or flowery or funky. The best part about all these intense regulations is that by law, you can’t add a bunch of fillers or artificial crap into . Pisco is just pisco.
I mean, there is the uncontestable pisco sour. Persian limes (special limes), egg white for froth, a little sweetness, and the fiery aguardientes have been making this drink a bar staple since the 1800s. One of a few origin stories for the cocktail centers around the historic Hotel Bólivar in central Lima, which today makes a version with pisco macerated with coca leaves for a distinctly vodka-redbull-without-the sugar-headache tingly feeling. [NOTE: despite unrefined coca’s complete illegality in the US, I like to quote author Mark Adams from his travel memoir Turn Right at Macchu Picchu on its potency: “coca leaves have about the same relationship to cocaine that Sudafed cold tablets have to crystal meth.” We were perked up, but nobody wanted to talk ecstatically to strangers and dance on tables all night. The leaves lent an herbal note to the sours that, combined with the silk of the eggwhites and the quebrantas burn, was exceedingly pleasant.
Coca Sours at Bolivarcito in Lima – breakers of language barriers
You can get a pisco sour just about anywhere that serves alcohol. We had one at the coffee shop. We had one at the cevichería. We had one at the sushi resto and the club-y bar. The sour is frequently accompanied on menus by the Chilcano–a long drink with lime and ginger ale/beer over ice (mule style); and the Capitán, a short, stirred drink with sweet vermouth and bitters (Manhattan style). However, having the privilege of drinking at some of Lima’s most interesting bars and restaurants, all I wanted was to see what the mixologists were up to.
Clockwise from top left: Shilico from ámaZ, Tobaco y Chanel and Capitán Cacao from La Barra, pisco puro (neat) from the very puzzled waiters at the sushi spot, Edo.
We went to Ámaz early on, which was good, because it was fantastic, but also bad, because I really had no idea how fantastic until I’d had some time to decompress. The Amazonian food menu has had people cooing for some time, but the bar has all the fixings to make a cocktail snob go all squishy with excitement. My selection: Shilico — Pisco, camu camu, bianco vermouth and Aperol. Translation, respectively: 1) the national spirit, 2) Amazonian berries, 3) the forgotten (and subtly tastiest) vermouth, 4) Campari’s more easy-going cousin. Boom. Pow. What. Up.
At La Barra (the casual-ish arm of the sooo famous Astrid y Gastón) we had a twist on a capitán with punt-e-mes and creme de cacao (a liqueur that seems much more at home in South America), a gin and tonic with melting spun sugar and lavender ice cubes, and a rum drink with tropical fruit and honey served in a maté gourd with a metal straw and a side of burning pipe tobacco for el nariz. Fricken wonderland.
Every other place we went, I kept trying to try new piscos, just for sipping–a habit that my Peruvian hosts found funny and a little worrisome. The neat pour does not seem as pervasive as it is stateside, but I’m thinking with the rise in popularity of satiny and aromatic mosto verdes, this might change. But what do I know. I was only there for a week.
Yeah, but soooo?
Lima’s bartenders have shown that pisco is mixable in just about every way you can think. Long drinks, short drinks, infusions, flaming theatrical pieces. They have the heritage and the raw materials. And with the investment-backed juggernaut of Pisco Portón pulling a Jameson on the marketing landscape, I have the feeling you’re going to see more and more pisco in US bars. Which is exciting. Because it’s an approachable white spirit that’s more interesting than vodka. Don’t argue with this. It is.
So go drink some fricken pisco. Here are a couple I like that you can get in the US:
Capurro – a legit Peruvian pisco available mostly (I believe, somebody correct me if this is wrong) as an acholado or blend. I like blends. It means somebody really took the time to think about how it should taste.
Campo de Encanto – Puro? check. Acholado? check. Multiple grape varietals? Indeed. This stuff is pretty sweet.
Any other recs? LMK.