Arrive in Peru and chances are you’ll soon be sipping a Pisco Sour. The tangy yellow elixir is a mix of pisco, Peru’s national firewater, lime juice and simple syrup, all topped off with a silky froth of whipped egg whites and a few dashes of bitters. It’s darn good, and it’s likely to be the only pisco cocktail you’ve ever heard of — but it’s not the only way to savor pisco.
Bright and grassy pisco is made from distilling fermented grapes of a single varietal, and much like wine, Peruvian piscos vary depending on the grape. Aromatic piscos are made from grapes like albilia and muscat, while pisco puro, often made with the quebranta varietal, is the best way to enjoy the liquor’s earthy kick.
Locals know that there are plenty of drinks worth mixing pisco into besides Peru’s signature cocktail, from citrusy punches to rich and creamy dessert tipples. Here are some of the best ones you’ll find around the country:
1. Pisco Sour Maracuya
Adding a tropical twist, this is a traditional Pisco Sour pepped up with the juice of maracuya, passion fruit. The maracuya gives it a touch of exotic sweetness and it’s still served with that luscious egg-white head.
2. El Capitán
They don’t call this cocktail The Captain for nothing. It’s a bracing mix of pisco, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters; essentially a pisco-based Manhattan. Not for the faint hearted.
3. Pisco Chilcano
The Chilcano is not a particularly sexy quaff, seeing as it looks like a tumbler of 7Up – but it’s a lighter drink than the frothy Pisco Sour. A mix of pisco, lime, soda, and lots of ice, the Chilcano is a refreshing alternative on a hot evening, and washes down all that ceviche well. Seasoned bartenders will usually use ginger ale, but other colas will do. Just make sure they don’t mix it with Inka Cola — lest you want to turn your beverage, and possibly your pee, a radioactive shade of yellow.
Where Pisco Chilcano is light, the algarrobina is rich and satisfying. Peruvians like the libation so much they have a special day in March to celebrate it. The creamy confection is made with a syrup derived from the chocolatey fruit of the algarroba, or carob, tree, mixed with evaporated milk and egg yolks, and sprinkled with cinnamon. A more cloying version of the drink uses condensed milk.
5. Pisco Punch
Best served by the pitcher and shared with friends outside, Pisco Punch dresses up the spirit in a sugary concoction of pineapple juice, lemon juice, simple syrup, and bitters. An even more authentic take nixes the pineapple juice and simple syrup in favor of a pineapple gomme syrup, made from enriching pineapple simple syrup with gum arabic for a smooth, velvety mouthfeel. Best for big nights out… and big hangovers.
6. Pisco Crusta
Brandy Crustas (the original Sidecars) have been around for a couple of centuries, and Peruvians have their own version in the Pisco Crusta. This popular drink blends pisco, bitters, lemon juice, grenadine or simple syrup, and maraschino liqueur, and features the signature sugar rim, or “crust.”
You don’t need booze to feel tipsy in Cusco, seeing as the city’s located more than 11,000 feet above sea level. Locals deal with the altitude by sipping coca leaf tea, but frankly the tea tastes like tree branches. Better to have it mixed into your cocktail – along with ginger, coconut cream and lime – and call it “Cocaine,” like they do at Cusco’s hopping bar Limbus.
Inspired by Irish whisky, Peruvians use the English “coffee” not “café” to name this morning brew. This union of coffee, whipped cream, and pisco is one helluva way to start the day. Buenos días!
If you’ve never had pisco before, it’s important to try it in its unadulterated form: neat. The best way to sample it solo is to sip on a pisco puro, such as a quebranta-style one, in a bowl-shaped glass like a brandy snifter, so you can appreciate its fragrant funkiness…and then order just one more.