The fascinating origins of the chilcano cocktail

By Nick Rosen

The chilcano is considered one of Peru’s favorite cocktails, but its origins actually come from overseas.

The fascinating origins of the chilcano cocktail

Preparing chilcanos (Facebook/Semana del Chilcano)

A refreshing chilcano— made with pisco, ginger ale, a few drops of lime juice and a dash of bitters— is one of Peru’s favorite cocktails and a source of national pride. Its origins, however, can probably be traced back to distant lands.

In the late nineteenth century, there was a large wave of Italian immigration to Peru. These immigrants brought a lot of their old culinary habits with them, and many of those recipes have been integrated into Peru’s local cuisine. The Italians also brought their cocktail recipes to Peru, and one of their favorites was the buon giorno, made with grappa, ginger ale and a twist of lime.

As expert Soledad Marroquin told El Comercio, upon arriving in Peru, these immigrants substituted their old grape brandy, grappa, for the local grape brandy, pisco, thus creating the cocktail we know today. According to bartender Roberto Melendez, the drink was born sometime around the turn of the twentieth century.

Marroquin told El Comercio that the buon giorno was ascribed various restorative properties by the immigrants, much as Peruvians ascribed restorative properties to a fish soup they called the chilcano. That, she says, explains how the buon giorno lost its name and gained the strange name chilcano de pisco.

Of course, not everyone believes this theory. Highball cocktails combining ginger ale with whiskey or gin were popular in the United States and elsewhere in the early twentieth century, providing another possible explanation for the local cocktail. Jaime Marimón, of the Pisco Local Denomination Regulation Board, suggests that the name might be a reference to the coastal community of Chilca.

Whatever its origin, by the 1940s the drink was popular in bars throughout Lima, though it was rarely served in luxurious spots, according to El Comercio. Many bars sold it as a res de pisco— a bottle of pisco, a bottle of ginger ale, and limes, to be mixed by the patrons themselves at their tables.