As with so many things in our history, there are also many versions of the origins of the Chilcano, a classic Peruvian cocktail, although I have my own personal experience to draw from. I have always said, and will continue to stand behind my statement, that the Chilcano was born in Callao (Peru’s main sea port), on pasaje Galvez, a street that leads to the plaza of the Matriz Church. Along the street’s two blocks you can find the Italian “barrio” of Callao full of pulperías (sea food tapas bars), bars and restaurants, hardware stores, beauty salons and a very special little elementary school located on a second floor. Here is where I initiated my school days. I’m talking about 1957 when my old man and his work buddies were already drinking “Chilcano” and “Capitán” cocktails. We lived on Av. Sáenz Peña, in the old Banco de Lima building, across from the Real Felipe castle.
I know that the Pisco Chilcano came from the same concept as the fish chilcano, both from the dock of Callao and referred to as “levantamuertos,” or hang-over cures. One would generally drink it in the mornings to cortar la resaca (ease the hangover).
Originally made with grappa and ginger ale, it later changed to Pisco but the ginger ale stayed on. In those days however it was a different ginger ale, made by Canada Dry. The brown bottles came in wooden boxes, and when you drank one you were left with a tingling sensation from the real ginger that was used, a feeling nearly impossible to find now a days, although there are a few select brands coming into the local market.
Even at the end of the XIX century, other ginger ale brands were being offered. Some of the advertisements from those days are as such:
The gentlemen of Ungerfroren & C° make excellent ginger-ale & soda waters which are widely consumed and have greater demand than current available production. (Carlos B. Cisneros & Rómulo E. García. Guía del viajero. Callao, Lima y sus alrededores. Lima, Imprenta del Estado, 1898, p. 42).
Legitimate Belfast Ginger ale, English Soda sold at customs or delivery. Tomas Dawson. Calle Villeta N° 5. (El Comercio, March 30th 1891).
The Chilcano is unique and is Peruvian, beginning with its name. Let’s keep this classic a classic. Let’s not ride its coattails and discredit it in order to create new cocktails. Our Chilcano doesn’t need it! In recent years we have seen a dilution of our beloved classic. Despite all of the “flavors” of Chilcanos being offered, there is no such thing. A classic is a classic and must be respected and maintained. Would we accept say, a Strawberry Screwdriver? No. While we applaud the creativity of creating new mixes and flavors, let’s also be creative in naming our new creations. The simple fact that you use ginger ale in the mix does not make it a Chilcano. This is the opinion of a bartender from way back when.
This January 12-19, Peru will celebrate “La Semana del Chilcano” (Chilcano Week). If I’m not mistaken, this is the seventh year and I am celebrating this year’s slogan: “Chilcano de Pura Cepa” (Pure breed/grape Chilcano). This is a very Peruvian expression that means “purebreed” and which plays on the word cepa, meaning type of pisco grape, grapes that are unique in the world.
Let’s hope that our Peruvian bartenders will rise to the occasion and take this message to heart and that we all give our “Classic Pisco Chilcano,” its rightful place and all of the respect it deserves.
The full list of the establishments that will be participating in this event will be published in all of the main newspapers of Lima and on Thursday on Living in Peru. We will be participating with El Pisquerito, and will be bringing the week to a close on Thursday, January 19, with a very special celebration.
Love Pisco, know Pisco, enjoy Pisco.