Pisco for One?

When travelling in Peru one thing that you will always notice is the friendliness and warm hospitality of the people. That, and that they know how to have a good fiesta! Peruvians love to dance and have fun, and that includes the odd drink or five. Yet even drinking becomes an activity between friends here, so rather than ordering your own beer as in Europe or America, people will share the same bottle and sometimes the same cup, making drinking a really social activity. Of course not everyone may like this idea. I have “fond” memories of drinking from communal cups at highland fiestas, watching as the cup got ever more dirty as more people joined in and got increasingly tipsy. I think I got tonsillitis once like this, although that was in Iguazu so we can blame the Argentines for that one!

So much alcohol choice here!
So much delicious alcohol choice here!

Nevertheless, drinking, and most importantly the sharing of beverages, is an important part of Peruvian culture. To see how far back this tradition stretches, take this example of an Inca cup that can be found in Museo Larco (pictured). The double openings and candelabra-shape meant that two people could drink the same liquid at the same time and from the same cup. Usually used to seal a deal, this demonstrates just how important sharing alcohol was in Inca times. Personally I think these should be brought back into use- some interesting drinking games could ensue!

Inca double cup. MUSEO LARCO
Inca double cup. MUSEO LARCO

The Incas would usually have been drinking chicha- a fermented beer drink made from maize. How does one ferment maize I hear you ask? Well, by chewing the maize kernels and spitting them back out so that they ferment with the saliva, of course. Tasty. Luckily the chicha morada you can find in Peru today does´t have human saliva as a key ingredient, and is definitely worth a try.

But it is not chicha that is today viewed as the Peruvian alcohol drink par excellence. Pisco is. Most visitors to Peru will have tried the Pisco sour cocktail, and probably would have noted the incredible 42% alcoholic volume that the Pisco aguardiente has. Be careful how many you drink! But perhaps not everyone will know how Pisco developed, or why it is an oddity (in my opinion).

Coca Pisco, so many different piscos to try!
Coca Pisco, so many different Piscos to try!

Pisco sours are cocktails, and by definition a drink for just one person (I mean, you could make one up in a kind of fish bowl popular among university students and hen and stag parties, but I dont think they would here). So after I´ve just said that Peruvians like to share drinks, why is it that the rules don´t apply to the national drink? The answer is, Pisco was actually developed by the Spanish, and so in many ways is a introduced, rather than a native, drink. When the Spanish came to Peru 500 years ago, they brought grapes with them. Invading is hard work without wine, apparently. When they saw the massive (child sized) bottles where the Incas kept their chicha, they asked what they were called. Well, those bottles were called Piscos, hence the name (this is a bit disputed, but I like this story the most). So the Spanish then took this name, along their grapes, and fermented them into the aguardiente today recognized as Pisco. Because of the climate here, the grapes would grow small and sweet, rather than large and watery like Spanish grapes, making them better for Pisco than for wine.

Mixing up a Pisco Sour
Mixing up a Pisco Sour

Pisco is today enjoyed as the Spanish would have, one for each of us. But this is not the traditional Peruvian way of drinking, and now you know why! Perhaps next time you order a Pisco in Peru, try sharing it around the group in true Peruvian style.

Selling Pisco
Selling Pisco


Karikuy Readers who want to try a free sample of Artesanal Pisco are encouraged to visit the friendly people over at Sotelo Pisco, Jr. De La Union 851 (opposite San Francisco Church).

Beckie is a volunteer with the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru

Beckie Melanie

Beckie is a professional lover of Peru, with two Masters degrees in Anthropology & Development, for which she undertook research in the Andean highlands. She is now starting her PhD with a research focus on Peruvian medicine, so loves to learn all she can about the people and their culture! Beckie is currently learning Quechua, and recommends that everyone come to Peru and try ceviche.

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