So, Machu Pichu is great and all. And the fact that Peru is home to Caral, the ruins of the oldest urban civilization in the Americas and possibly the world, is ok too. Peru’s status as a top-of-the-world gastronomic center is also just dandy. But Pisco. Oh my god, Pisco.
Like Russians drink vodka, like Kentuckians drink bourbon… Peruvians drink Pisco.
Pisco is made from grapes. Like, a lot of grapes, and the type of grapes and number of grapes are crazy important. The type of grapes is important because it determines what kind of Pisco you’re drinking. There are 8 types of grapes. My Peruvian husband can name them all. I cannot. You don’t need to know them to drink Pisco. The number of grapes is important because a few years ago, the simpering landmass that is Chile had the staggering gall to claim that they also make Pisco. THEY DO NOT. Do not ever ask in Peru if Chile makes Pisco. In fact, don’t bring up Chile at all. Just to be on the safe side.
To Peruvians’ defense though, it actually looks like they’re quantifiably correct: Peruvian Pisco (if you count the swill that Chile produces as “pisco” at all) is just objectively, measurably better. Peruvian Pisco has strict, strict regulations: It must always use fresh grapes, and it has to bottled straight out of the still. Chilean “pisco” has far fewer rules. It’s often distilled several times then diluted with water, and apparently uses far fewer grapes per bottle.
There are two drinks to order if you want to try Pisco in Peru: The first is the chilcano (#2 in the lineup below), which is a bit on the safer side. It’s your standard mixed drink: a few fingers of Pisco, fill the glass with ginger ale, a twist of lime and a few drops of bitters. The second is the Pisco Sour (#1 in the lineup). That sucker will knock you on your butt.
We took Anna and Ben to one of my favorite bars in Lima: La Cuadra de Salvador. It’s got a stunning marble bar right when you walk in that’s visually gorgeous and extremely well staffed. And, since the restaurant is right next to our old apartment, Ivo has gotten to know a few of the bartenders. One of them, a guy who has been in the bartending business for something like 3 decades, was kind enough to give Anna and Ben the full Pisco run down, from a sampling of the Pisco varieties they had available to a demonstration of exactly how a pro makes a Pisco Sour. The base ingredients are a very cold glass (it has to be pre-chilled, since there are no ice cubes in the drink itself), a generous amount of Pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, an egg white, and bitters. Don’t ask me the parts ratio — I can’t quite remember, and Ivo is like a live-in budding bartender so I don’t have to know — but Anna is a pharmacist, and she does formulas basically for a living (as I understand pharmacy): if you need the Pisco Sour recipe, ask her. Or, you know, some Peruvian on the Internet.
We made sure to do a swing by Hotel Bolivar in the city center, which I still hold serves my favorite Pisco Sours in the city. It’s also where I had my first Pisco Sour, so some nostalgia may be at play. Ok, it’s where I had my first two Pisco Sours. In a row. In a size described on the menu as “catedral” (trans.: “cathedral”). The thing about Pisco Sours is that they’re disarmingly sweet. They just taste so good. Cold and with that gorgeous Peruvian lime juice… Well, as it turns out, my first visit to Hotel Bolivar was also pretty memorably the first time I’d ever so rapidly realized (upon standing up) that I was, in fact, thoroughly sloshed. When we visited with Anna and Ben, we all wisely voted to forego the “catedral” Pisco Sours and just ordered a regular sized round.
When Anna and Ben came to visit for a week this February, they had the impeccable timing of arriving smack in the middle of Lima’s Pisco Festival, which is exactly as awesome as it sounds. Vendors from all over Peru get together under domed tents set up seaside to show off and sell their products at incredibly competitive prices. There’s live music and food trucks and a great ocean breeze.
We grabbed a round of Pisco Sours, wandered around surveying the food options, then transitioned into a “make-your-own-drinks” tray of ice, ginger ale and a bottle of Pisco and planted ourselves on a few open hay bales. Technically there was another couple sitting with us, but they were busy sloppily making out, etc. (it’s South America, PDA is just part of the landscape). We stayed until it got dark and the hanging lights came on. We stayed when the electricity inside the main tent shuttered off. We stayed to hear the cheering when they got that electricity back on, and we stayed when our electricity outside flipped off too. I’m fairly confident we eventually went in for a second bottle at some point, but I’ll be honest: I’m already a lightweight, so after like six chilcanos, a salchipapa and a round of picarrones, the night mostly became a crazy blur of friends, laughter, flickering lights, Spanish, English, and Pisco.