Editor’s note: Another incredible article from Kathryn featuring the story of one of the most iconic drinks in Latin America! Check out all of her articles here on The Royal Tour here.
Legend has it that the Incan chief Pachacutec ordered the construction of the Achirana del Inca canal in the deserts of the upper Ica valley, a couple of hours drive south of modern-day Lima, to irrigate the lands of a local maiden he wanted to impress. History doesn’t tell us whether his wooing programme was successful, but when the Spanish arrived a hundred years later, they decided that the fertile, well-watered soil would be the ideal location for a vineyard, allowing them to produce their own wine instead of importing it from Europe.
This enterprise proved so successful that in 1641 Spain banned Peru from exporting their wine back to Europe. So instead, Peru’s winemakers nimbly pivoted to the production of a distilled spirit – a clear, colourless brandy, which shipped from the port of Pisco in barrels labelled “Aguardiente de Pisco,”and was thereafter known and loved by Peruvians as, simply, pisco.
Located just outside Ica, the Tacama winery was South America’s very first winery and one of my stops on a weekend’s itinerary taking in Paracas, the Iles Balestas and the oasis at Huacachina. Planted with vines from the Canary Islands, it was initially operated by a religious order tasked to provide communion wine for the convents, monasteries, and churches of Lima. It passed into private ownership in 1889, when the Oleachea family took it over, and not only do they still run the place, but it’s still fully operational, producing a wide variety of prize-winning wines and piscos as well as being a significant tourist attraction in the area.
The Tacama Winery
As you’d expect, you can take a tour in English of the facility and do some tastings (which I did, and thoroughly enjoyed). Winery tours and tastings can sometimes feel like much of a muchness – as though if you’ve done one, you’ve done them all. So, if it’s your kind of thing you’ll really enjoy it, and if it’s not, you probably won’t. However there are two things that make Tacama really stand out. One is the beauty of the setting: the landscape is truly gorgeous, with spectacular views over the valley from the clocktower, and all the original convent buildings like the cloisters and the chapel are still there and open, which makes it wonderfully atmospheric. The other is the restaurant and bar, where the food is good and the pisco cocktails are top-notch.
I particularly enjoyed the Tacama Sunset, a spicy cocktail made with pisco, tonic water, and passion fruit, and flavoured with black pepper and basil. Other classic pisco-based cocktails you’re likely to encounter as you travel around the country include a Chilcano – a long, cool, refreshing drink made with pisco, ginger ale, lime juice, and lots of ice cubes, perfect on a summer’s day. And, of course, there’s the Pisco Sour – foamy, tangy, sweet, deceptively potent and bitterly contested by one of Peru’s southern neighbours.
My Pisco Sour being made expertly
Peru and Chile have a long-running rivalry over the geographical provenance (and cultural ownership) of pisco. Both countries lay claim to its origins and consider not only pisco as their national drink, but more specifically, the Pisco Sour. The EU adjudicated and granted Peru the official provenance of pisco (for export purposes) in 1993, and to celebrate, the Peruvians dedicated an annual holiday to this culinary expression of their national identity, with the first Saturday of February always being National Pisco Sour Day.
The exact origins of the drink are a bit vague, and naturally Chile also tells its own version of its creation myth, but the accepted version (in Peru, at least) is that American bartender Victor Vaughen Morris arrived at the height of Peru’s mining and construction boom in 1903 to seek his fortune on the railways. He opened Morris’ Bar in Lima in 1916 and a few years later improvised a pisco-based equivalent of the whisky sour by adding lime juice and sugar to the local hooch. Mario Bruiget, a Peruvian bartender working at Morris’ a few years later, added Angostura bitters and egg whites to the mix, creating the concoction Peruvians know and love today. Morris’ Bar closed in 1929, and what is now the Hotel Maury stands on the original site in downtown Lima. If you drop in there today, you can order a Pisco sour expertly mixed by Eloy, the hotel’s barman for over 50 years.
The recipe has reputedly been perfected by the bar staff at Gran Hotel Bolivar in the nearby Plaza San Martin. Built in the 1920s, this hotel epitomised South American exoticism and glamour back in the mid-20th century and counted Walt Disney, Ava Gardner, and Ernest Hemingway among its patrons. It’s famous for the Cathedrale de Pisco, effectively a triple pisco sour served in a distinctive fluted glass. They’re delicious, but after more than two, the best advice I can offer is to proceed with extreme caution.
Cathedrale de Pisco
If you can’t make the trip to Tacama, but you’re interested in learning more about the history and production process of Peru’s national drink, then you can also pay a visit to either of the Pisco Museums in Lima – one is downtown, and the other is in Miraflores – and they’ll give you a good introduction. Naturally, they’ll also serve you a drink or two, and I am all in favour of visits to bars which can also be classed as “educational visits.”
Even if you don’t make the pilgrimage to the Gran Hotel Bolivar for the Cathedrale de Pisco, you will still be able to order a Pisco Sour in pretty much any bar in Lima. And you really should! It’s as typically Peruvian as ceviche and every bit as delicious.
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