Superfluous holidays such as Sweetest Day, National Grandparents Day and Boss’s Day are often referred to as “Hallmark Holidays,” because many believe they exist primarily for commercial reasons such as increasing the sales of greeting cards and not to truly appreciate significant people. There are other celebrations that seem downright silly, such as International Pancake Day (Feb. 21), National High Five Day (April 19) and Talk Like A Pirate Day (Sept. 19).
In the country of Peru, there is one holiday that may appear excessive at first, but is truly a celebration of national pride. This is National Pisco Day, which is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in July.
Pisco, which is considered a symbol of Peruvian nationality, is a type of grape brandy or Aguardiente, distilled from Muscat grapes. Pisco is produced and exported from both Peru and Chile, and both countries claim to be the original producers. It has become a fierce source of contention between the two nations. According to SouthAmericanFood.com, the Spanish conquistadores brought grape vines to South America in order to make wine for their own consumption and export. Distilling Pisco was an easy way to use leftover grapes that were undesirable for wine making.
The patriotic spirit surrounding National Pisco Day is amplified because the holiday falls very close to Peruvian Independence Day, celebrated on July 28, often with a toast of pisco.
I was fortunate enough to be in Cusco, Peru, to take part in the festivities for both holidays. To kick off the merriment, I was given a shot of Pisco from Lizardo Valderrama Gilt, my host in whose home I was staying. The shot had a strong and powerful grape nose to it, but it went down surprisingly smooth. Its dominate flavor was grape with notes of earthiness, spice and tart fruit with a clean and bracing finish.
To further explore this spirit, I met up with my newly minted friends, Suzanne Harle and Sabrina for a few rounds of cocktailing. We started off with the most popular Pisco tipple, the Pisco Sour, a mixture of Pisco, lemon, bitters, a sweetener and an egg white. We headed to the Crown, a second-story restaurant with a gorgeous view of the Plaza Des Armas for their two-for-one happy hour. The egg white gives this cocktail a smooth, full body while tart lemon citrus flavor is a nice compliment to the woody pisco. So good that it is hard to detect the amount of alcohol in the drink. That may explain why we left the bar wearing balloon hats.
Our second stop was the upscale Limo, one the most highly-regarded restaurants in Cusco, which boasts a three-page menu of creative pisco cocktails. Just watching the scene behind the bar proved to be entertaining, with men squeezing, pureeing, muddling, and juicing fresh ingredients.
We sampled three concoctions, one forged from eucalyptus, another from lemongrass and one made with tumba fruit. The tumba is a relative of the maracuya fruit, which is commonly eaten in Peru. The eucalyptus had a cool soothing effect, while the lemongrass mixture was refreshing and uplifting. The tumba had an exotic tropical flavor similar to passion fruit but with a little more punch.
The evening continued with more flavorful cocktails, including a fresh strawberry concoction, one blended with Peru’s potent coco leaves and a South American version of the classic Negroni with pisco substituted for the gin. The evening was capped off with a night of salsa dancing to burn off all the excess alcohol.
If you cannot make it to Peru and would like to try pisco in Washington, I recommend whipping up a few Pisco sours at home. Most liquor store will carry at least one brand of Peruvian Pisco, such as Porton, or Macchu Pisco. This classic tipple is a great way to try this interesting and versatile liquor. If you would like to try something more exotic, Las Canteras in Adams Morgan has a full menu of delicious pisco cocktails.
The Pisco Sour
Place 4 cups ice cubes
1 cup pisco
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup white sugar
1 egg white
A dash of angostura bitters
Blend on high speed until finely pureed. Pour into two glasses and garnish with an additional dash of bitters.