There’s no doubt that the Pisco Sour is omnipresent in Peru. In Lima, tourists clamor to order the national drink served at legendary watering holes like the historic Gran Hotel Bolívar, while supermarkets dedicate entire sections to pre-mixed versions.
The story goes that the national drink was crafted by a Lima bartender who had run out of whiskey and decided to swap pisco into the Whiskey Sour template. Since then, the unaged brandy has served as the base spirit for dozens of variations on classics, like the Cholopolitan, which uses the Cosmopolitan’s key ingredients of orange liqueur and cranberry juice but substitutes vodka with pisco, or the El Capitán, a pisco-based take on the Manhattan.
But one easy-drinking cocktail has risen so much in popularity that it has now eclipsed Peru’s national drink. The Pisco Chilcano, made with pisco, ginger ale, lime juice and Angostura bitters, is light and bright and as easy to make as it is to drink.
“When Italian migrants first came to Peru, they brought various things—including grappa, the Italian spirit made from grapes,” says Fiorella Larrea, master mixologist at the Belo Bar at Belmond’s Miraflores Park Hotel in Lima. “They used it to make a drink made with ginger ale, but later substituted grappa with pisco, which made it fresher and easier to prepare, because grappa wasn’t really [widely] available here at that time. They called it a Chilcano because it had the same golden color as a Peruvian fish soup with the same name.”
Fast-forward to today, and this simple cocktail is giving the Pisco Sour a run for its money. “The Chilcano is definitely the most popular pisco drink in Peru, simply because it’s so refreshing,” says Angie Alave Armas, bar manager at Houlihan’s, a popular Irish pub in downtown Lima. Although the Chilcano is equally popular with locals, the absence of egg white plays a key role in attracting tourists who are keen to try pisco, but weary of the frothy Pisco Sour. “Many of them find it weird that we’ve got this cocktail made with egg,” Armas says.
Like the Pisco Sour, the Pisco Chilcano has gone through its own evolution—a range of fruit liqueurs, spices and herbs are now common additions to the format. One of the most popular drinks at Houlihan’s, for example, is the passion fruit Chilcano. Bar Inglés in the Country Club Lima Hotel, meanwhile, puts a spin on the drink with its Pisco Chilcano de Guinda, in which cherry liqueur adds tart sweetness to the classic, and at the Belo Bar, Larrea has prepared Pisco Chilcanos with macerated fruit, hibiscus and lemongrass, although she admits to a weakness for a version made with grilled bell peppers. “You get this delicious, tequila-like smokiness,” she says. Others put a simpler twist on the drink: Barra 55, a cocktail bar in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood, swaps the requisite Angostura for orange bitters for an extra citrusy kick.
But even the simplest preparations can be the most refreshing, and the ease with which the drink can be thrown together is key to its appeal. The Pisco Sour, typically served in a coupe glass, with its precisely applied dots of Angostura bitters resting on a perfectly whisked layer of egg white, comes with an aura of sophistication. But the Pisco Chilcano, a tall drink made with ingredients that don’t necessarily need to be mixed or added in any particular order, takes itself far less seriously. “It’s a party drink,” says Larrea. “If you go to a party in Peru, this is what people will be drinking.”