Shaking Up Pisco, Peru’s Native Spirit
Andy Isaacson for The New York Times
By ANDY ISAACSON
Published: April 11, 2012
PISCO, the national spirit of Peru, is a trickster: it appears so clear and pure — yet before long, you are under the table. Peruvians like to say that good pisco will never give you a hangover, although after a recent night in Lima, I beg to differ. Pisco is made from a single distillation of young wine that holds the varietal qualities of one of eight different grapes from which it can be made. And like Champagne or tequila, Peruvian pisco is an official appellation; to be bona fide, it must adhere to strict, traditional production methods. Nothing — not even water — can be added.
Pisco has been made in the dry coastal valleys of southern Peru since at least the early 17th century, and has become inextricably linked to the country’s identity. The spirit must be served at Peruvian diplomatic functions around the world. The national drink, the pisco sour, is an indigenous marriage of pisco, the distinctive Peruvian lime, egg white and bitters derived from the bark of a Peruvian tree. (It even has its own national day of celebration.)
As Peru’s fortunes have gone, so have those of pisco, reaching a golden age during the flush mineral boom of the late 19th century, when an influx of Italians introduced refined winemaking techniques. In Lima’s bars, pisco flowed copiously back then, though it was Chile that first established the spirit as a denomination of origin in 1931, staking a marketing claim. (Chilean pisco is an altogether different product, with different ingredients and processes that yield a different flavor.) Bleak times followed: amid Socialist land reforms and often violent political conflicts that plagued Peru for most of the last century, the quality and reputation of pisco sank. Limeños defected to foreign whiskey and vodka — anything but pisco, then considered the tipple of old-timers and drunks.
In the last few years, though, as Peru’s circumstances have reversed, dedicated pisqueros are now producing excellent piscos, and the mixology renaissance that has touched many of the world’s cities has also landed in Lima’s bars. Here are four spots in the capital city that, in their own distinctive way, reflect how Peruvians have rediscovered their native spirit.
On a recent late Friday afternoon, this swank beachfront spot felt like Malibu: from a back patio suspended over the sand, well-tanned patrons sipped cocktails in view of surfers. The cocktails in hand are the creations of Enrique Vidarte, widely considered the city’s most inventive pisco mixologist. His well-balanced concoctions are a perfect showcase for the different pisco varietals: El Verdecito, a delicious green slurried cocktail served in a margarita glass, blends pisco Italia, with a bright citrus and sweet floral nose, together with mint leaves, sugar and Peruvian lime juice (22 nuevos soles, or $8 at 2.73 nuevos soles to the dollar).
The 42 cocktails on Mr. Vidarte’s menu are mostly his own, but there are a few classics, like the Capitán. A dry mix of pisco and red vermouth (the drink’s white and red stripes conjure a Peruvian naval captain’s insignia) and amaretto, the drink is a throwback to the spirited scene of the 1920s at Lima’s Gran Hotel Bolivar, where it was popularized — some believe in response to the drought of American whiskey during Prohibition.
Cala, Avenida Circuito Vial Costa Verde; Playa Barranquito; Espigón B2; Barranco; (51-1) 252-9187; calarestaurante.com.
Bar Inglés, Country Club Lima Hotel
No Peruvian cocktail is more classic than the pisco sour. Invented, paradoxically, by an expat Mormon from Utah named Victor Morris, the recipe was canonized in the 1930s at the Hotel Maury in Lima. These days, the Maury serves a warm, overly sweet version to tourists who don’t know it is not the real thing.
For that, I headed to Bar Inglés, a wood-paneled retreat inside the grand Country Club Lima Hotel, where the drink (26 nuevos soles) is mixed by Roberto Meléndez, and is a direct transmission of the original. (Mr. Meléndez’s father worked at Hotel Maury in the 1940s.)
Mr. Meléndez reached for Pisco Qollqe, one of the new-wave artisanal brands, and measured out a precise ratio: four parts pisco to one part lime, one part simple syrup and an egg white. Shaken and poured into a chilled wine glass, it ended up with a lovely topping of foam. He also added a few drops of bitters for fragrance.
“This,” he said with confidence, “is the same pisco sour that was served at the Hotel Maury.”
Bar Inglés, Los Eucaliptos 590; San Isidro; (51-1) 611-9000; hotelcountry.com.
This contemporary bar and restaurant, which opened three years ago, was still quiet when I arrived for dinner at 8:30. “It’s early yet,” said Jaime Pesaque, 32, Mayta’s rising-star chef. I came not only for Mr. Pesaque’s innovative new Peruvian food, but also for his traditional macerados — infusions of fruits, roots and herbs that Peruvians have prepared for centuries using pisco.
Over a hundred clear glass bottles are set up behind Mayta’s bar, like an apothecary, filled with piscos vibrantly infused with local ingredients like camu camu, yucca, ginger, rose petals and litchi, eucalyptus, mandarin and coca leaves, used to flavor variations of Mayta’s most popular cocktail, the Chilcano (20 nuevos soles). The tall, refreshing drink, purportedly introduced by 19th-century Italian immigrants, combines pisco with ginger ale, bitters and a splash of lime juice.
After sampling a flight of five small Chilcanos (50 nuevos soles), I retired to the dining room to enjoy a delicious, nine-course tasting menu (tuna ceviche, guinea pig confit; 160 nuevos soles). An hour later, the joint was humming.
Mayta, Avenida 28 de Julio 1290; San Antonio; Miraflores; (51-1) 243-0121;maytarestaurante.com.
This lively Miraflores bar is arranged in a series of elementally themed spaces, from the ground room (earth) to an attic (air). By 11 p.m., all the elements were populated with chattering young professionals drinking pisco cocktails.
“The younger generation has developed a pisco culture,” said Rosario Alcorta, 33, the bar’s bohemian owner. “Ten years ago, they weren’t even aware of it.” Indeed, Huaringas was the first to take the pisco sour in a modern direction by adding fruit flavors, like passion fruit.
“When I opened, older barmen would tell me, ‘What are you doing, this isn’t a pisco sour!’ ” Ms. Alcorta recalled. “Now you can find them in Chile.” The cocktail (21 nuevos soles) was a bit too tangy for my taste, but I enjoyed a refreshing coca leaf Chilcano (20 nuevos soles), before deciding I had imbibed enough pisco for one day.
“Peru has gone through very difficult periods,” Ms. Alcorta said. “But Peruvians have found through our food, our pisco quality, a way to be proud.”
Huaringas Bar, Calle Bolognesi 472; Miraflores; (51-1) 447-1133; huaringasbar.com.pe.