“About Chileans, bueno, I’m not going to say anything,” says Don Eloy Cuadros, waving his hand dismissively. “We all know what is the true history.”
The 77-year-old native of Huaral, a dusty farm town north of Lima, leans forward on his elbows, hands folded atop the gleaming bar. His eye flashes resolutely.
“Never let it be said I speak badly of my Chilean friends.
“But carajo, there’s such a thing as national pride.”
Discretion should by now be second nature to Don Eloy. After 59 years working as a bartender and confidant to tipsy patrons at the Hotel Maury, one of Lima’s most storied lodgings, he’s long since learned the virtues of tight-lippedness. Even when it comes to Chileans, the traditional bêtes noirs (bestias negras) of his native Peru. And even—or especially—when it comes to his countrymen’s fierce pride in their national drink, the pisco sour.
It’s a topic, be it said, that provokes strong opinions. Fanaticisms, even. Ever since, in the mixological murk of a century ago, there first appeared the blend of pisco, lime juice, ice, and sugar that would go on to lubricate countless South American get-togethers, Chile and Peru have tussled over who deserves credit for the drink’s recipe. It’s a conflict that’s embroiled academics, restaurateurs, even the Peruvian government. Only soccer—or the 1879 War of the Pacific, in which Chile copped a sizeable chunk of Peru’s territory—excites similar passions. National pride, as Don Eloy says.
Seen thus, the bar veteran’s tact makes eminent good sense.
“There are many locuras [crazy ideas] about this issue,” avers Cuadros. “A thousand and one opinions. People have written books. It’s ridiculous.”
He raises a finger peremptorily.
“But ojo, this I assure you. The pisco sour is Peruvian. And I’m the one responsible for it, in its present form.”
Strong claims, these. How true are they? That’s what I’m here to ascertain. Don Eloy may be diplomatic, but he also has the reputation of being a crucial link in Peruvian cuisine’s long history. To hear aficionados of the national cocktail tell it, it was he who, back in the 1950s, had the sudden inspiration to add key ingredients—egg whites and Angostura bitters—to its recipe-in-progress, thus bringing Peru’s trago bandera to its present perfection. This would make him not just an invaluable source on the Andean nation’s gastronomy (and the whole Peru-Chile flap), but, more importantly, a window onto a romantic Lima long since vanished.
A Lima even gringos like me can feel nostalgia for.
The froth on my drink is settling. I look at my host. Why, I ask, has the pisco sour become so iconic for Peruvians?
A pause. Cuadros considers, his lips pursed in concentration.
“Bueno, every country in Latin America has its food. And that’s vital.” His palms tap twice on the marble bartop.
“But Peru is the only one to have a national drink. And that too is something.”
Prehistory of a Potation
In the beginning was the Morris Bar. Outside, all lay shrouded in darkness.
Okay, maybe not darkness. But definitely dullness, owing to the lack of spiritous options to enliven the grays of Peru’s capital back in the day. Limeños in that era—this would be the 1910s—would stop off after work at the corner bodega for a beer or a shot of pisco, a locally produced, grape-based aguardiente, and trudge on home.
Then came Victor Morris, and his watershed inspiration. A Mormon transplanted to Peru, he’d done a stint with a mining outfit in the Andes, afterwards staying on to marry a local woman while running a bar in Jirón de la Unión, Lima’s main commercial drag. One night, a customer came in asking for a whisky sour. Morris was out of spiritus frumenti. So he whipped up a pisco-based alternative, adding lime juice and sugar for tang, and crossed his fingers.
The result was magic. Instantly, the drink caught on. By the early 20s, magazines up and down South America’s Pacific seaboard were touting the new brew. The Morris Bar became a mandatory stopover for Anglos in the land of the Incas.
Health problems caused Morris to shutter his eponymous canteen in 1929. Even with his demise, however, some months later, his recipe didn’t die with him. It had already migrated, carried by Morris’s barmen to Lima’s glitziest watering holes.
One of those holes was the Hotel Bolívar, then the grand dame of Peruvian lodgings. A magnet for politicos and film stars, it would play a key role in popularizing the fledgling aperitif.
Lima at the time was awash in gringos. Drawn by a minor oil bonanza, they found themselves intensely curious about Peru and its customs. By the late 40s, many had become apasionados of the pisco-based potation, especially as prepared in the Bolívar’s gilded saloon. Hemingway reportedly got soused on it, as did Orson Welles. John Wayne is said to have carried Ava Gardner back to her suite after she’d had one too many and danced barefoot on the hotel bar.
Yet despite this gringo-fed pisco craze, something was missing. The trendy new cocktail hadn’t found its final form.
Enter Eloy Cuadros. In 1958, the 17-year-old greenhorn was a recent transplant to Lima. While finishing his high-school diploma by taking night classes, he’d found a gig as a junior barman at the Hotel Maury. He quickly realized the enormous popularity of the pisco sour, whose recipe he’d learned from two older barhands, Graciano Cabrera and Aquiles Condory. (They in turn had had it from Mario Bruiget, a native of Chincha on Peru’s southern coast who’d emigrated to the Maury from the Morris Bar after its owner’s death.) To Cuadros, the drink was flavorful, but weak. A bit like limeade: watery, without presence or body.
So he did what Peruvians always do. He improvised. A few egg whites here, a few drops of Angostura bitters there. He also substituted jarabe de goma—gum syrup—for sugar.
The result? Pisco sour 2.0. Patrons raved. Peru was now definitely, irrevocably on the mixological map.
“The pisco sour used to be watery and transparent,” Cuadros says today. “A little dull. But a few alterations…well, that made all the difference.”
A National Holiday
Had Don Eloy’s contribution ended there and then, he’d still be a key protagonist in the pisco-sour saga. But a chance conversation took things to a new, political level.
Raul Vargas Vega is one of Peru’s top media personalities. Journalist, radio announcer, cousin to writer Mario Vargas Llosa, he’s written for countless Peruvian news publications, including the daily La República. In 2003, he was news director for RPP, the country’s biggest radio news network.
On February 2 of that crucial year, Vargas Vega found himself celebrating the national liquor at an event with colleagues in the Hotel Maury. The pisco sours, needless to say, were flowing. At one point, he and Cuadros got to chatting about publicity. The idea of a national holiday was floated, to celebrate the cocktail’s importance for the Peruvian identity. Cuadros volunteered to do his part.
“He asked me to come to the [radio] studio, to talk about the drink’s history. I said of course: I’d be delighted to participate.
“Clearly, this was something of importance for all Peruvians.”
Their subsequent on-air conversation was a hit, generating serious buzz. Why not a national holiday? Since the Maury event had been on a weekend, Vargas and Cuadros proposed that one Saturday in February be set aside in honor of Peru’s signature cocktail. The country’s then Minister of Production, Eduardo Iriarte, loved the idea. He contacted Vargas Vega to coordinate. So it came to be that, starting in 2004, Peruvians have tipped their old-fashioned glasses on the first Saturday in February to National Day of the Pisco Sour.
What the masses didn’t realize, however, was that the new holiday was partly political.
The government, it turned out, had long been eager to take a non-so-subtle swipe at their neighbors to the south. The Peru/Chile rivalry had been heating up for more than a decade, owing to rumors circulated by a Chilean folklorist named Oreste Plath. The latter had stumbled on documents that supposedly proved the pisco sour wasn’t Peruvian at all—that it was instead the brainchild of Elliot Stubb, an English ship’s steward who’d reportedly mixed lime juice, syrup, and ice in a bar in Iquique, a Chilean coastal town, in 1872. Plath’s response? A campaign to reclaim the ever-more-popular libation for la patria, an event culminating in Chile’s own “Piscola Day” in 2003.
Was Peru’s new holiday based on a falsehood?
Not so fast, said Peruvian historian Guillermo Toro-Lira. A scholar of Peru’s trago nacional, he’d done the legwork of actually tracking down Plath’s sources.
“It was all based on an article in the Chilean newspaper El Comercio de Iquique. But its topic was clearly the alleged invention of the whiskey sour—not the pisco sour.
“And, I might add, even that story is incorrect. The whiskey sour was first mentioned in a Wisconsin newspaper in the 1870.”
Peruvian pride, it would appear, had been vindicated.
As though to highlight this triumph, in 2007, Peru’s National Institute of Culture did a bit of chest-thumping, declaring the cocktail to be an official part of the nation’s cultural heritage. “[This pronouncement] is consistent and in keeping with the stipulations of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Immaterial Patrimony of UNESCO,” it sonorously affirmed.
Taking Pisco to the Bank
In the end, an argument could be made that the two countries were talking at cross purposes. Chile’s pisco sour, as such, is very different from Peru’s, dispensing with Don Eloy’s additions of bitters and egg whites and substituting Chilean for Peruvian pisco. But such trivia hold little weight in the face of Peru’s fervent gastronomic nationalism.
“The debates about the pisco sour’s origins are, in reality, a bit silly,” concedes José Antonio Schiaffino, another student of Peru’s culinary history. “But it’s a national institution, with a wonderful past. It should be popularized everywhere, including in the U.S., just as it is. It’s very simple to make, very basic….That’s what makes it extraordinary.”
Increasingly, Peru’s pisco producers are taking that popularity to the bank. In 2017, in the wake of all the cultural pronunciamientos, sales of the grape-based liquor spiked 14.3 percent, bringing total annual production to 10.7 million liters. And while Chile’s production is bigger—46.5 million liters—Peru’s is more profitable, generating $8.7 million, as compared with $2.8 million for its neighbor to the south.
More important than dollars or soles, though, are the associations the drink has for ordinary Peruvians.
Mario Ortiz, one of the Maury’s longtime customers, is eloquent in this regard. A 62-year-old Lima native, he’s a bottomless well of reminiscences when imbibing with his friends.
“Lima used to be a quiet city, you know. With trolleys and seaside resorts. On Sundays, my family would stroll down Jirón de la Unión, just window shopping, enjoying the afternoon. We’d always end by drinking in the [Hotel] Bolívar’s lounge. For me, the pisco sour is part of all those memories.
“It’s really about what it means to be criollo [a Peruvian from the coast].”
And Eloy Cuadros? How does he feel about having contributed so massively to his country’s daily life?
“Bueno, it’s an honor, obviously. The Maury is part of our cultural heritage. I’ve spent more of my life here than in my own house.”
He glances around, taking in the bar’s wood-paneled walls.
“The hotel is very old, you know. It’s been here since Peru has. I mean Peru as a separate country. Obviously, it won’t exist forever, and neither will I. But that’s of no importance.
“As long as I’m here, I plan on maintaining the tradition.”
Hotel Maury Jirón Ucayali 201 (Cercado de Lima) 428-8188
Gran Hotel Bolívar Jirón de la Unión 958 (Cercado de Lima) 619-7171