In addition to wine, South America offers an amazing array of distilled spirits, perfect for cocktails or sipping on their own.
Whether made from grapes (pisco), sugarcane (rum, cachaça, aguardiente) or local fruit (liqueurs), these pours are worth seeking out. Although some are associated with traditional drinks, like the Pisco Sour or Caipirinha, creative bartenders are taking these spirits to new heights.
Only a few years ago, many of these products were relatively obscure. Today, they’re widely available throughout the U.S., from premium brands to limited-edition bottlings.
This fragrant grape-based spirit, similar in some ways to an eau-de-vie, is made in slightly different methods in Peru and Chile. In general, Peruvian pisco is made in a more traditional style—no wood aging, no water added—while Chile utilizes more modern techniques.
Like wine or grappa, pisco is made from a variety of grapes, which can vastly change its character. Pisco puro is made with a single grape variety like Quebranta or Moscatel. It’s often aromatic, even floral and perfumy, as in the luscious cherry-almond fragrance exhibited by Tacama Pisco Puro Quebranta.
Acholado blends various grapes, so the flavor profile can vary widely. This category tends to include more earthy, robust offerings, with some acholados exhibiting Tequila-like funkiness.
The striking herbal-citrus profile of Campo de Encanto is just one pleasing example of the acholado style. Imported by San Francisco bartender Duggan McDonnell, the label features a photo of the old Bank Exchange, where Pisco Punch is said to have been created in the late 1800s. Pisco Punch remains one of the most important drinks in San Francisco history.
Finally, mosto verde is a method of pisco making that uses partially fermented, fresh-pressed grape juice, and as a result can be relatively sweet. It can be made from a single or multiple types of grapes. Pisco Portón, which has a fleeting tropical-fruit sweetness and a lingering rosewater finish, is an example of this style.
These Peruvian piscos aren’t the only game in town. A growing number of Chilean piscos are entering the market. Some, like Kappa Pisco, are clear and star-bright. But perhaps the most exciting Chilean piscos are barrel-aged versions, like Pisco Capel Alto del Carmen.
Recipe courtesy Deysi Alvarez, mixologist, Mo-Chica and Paiche, Los Angeles
3 slices of Japanese cucumber
Pinch of mint
1 ounce fresh lime juice
¾ ounce simple syrup
2 ounces of pisco
Mint leaves and cucumber slice, for garnish
Alvarez prefers Japanese cucumber for this drink (“It’s more flavorful,” she says). In a mixing glass, muddle the cucumber and mint with the fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Add the pisco and ice, and shake well. Strain into an Old-Fashioned glass over ice cubes. Garnish with a sprig of mint and a cucumber slice.
We can thank the recent FIFA World Cup for giving bars worldwide the excuse to bring out the cachaça (pronounced ka-SHA-sa), a Brazilian spirit made from sugarcane.
The spirit is easy to confuse with rum (some bottles are even labeled “Brazilian rum,” though producers convinced regulators to recognize cachaça as a unique category).
The main difference is that cachaça is made with the first press of the sugarcane—sugarcane juice, essentially—while most rums are made using molasses, which results in a darker hue and caramel-like flavor.
In general, cachaça has a lighter color, flavor and aroma than rum, offering vanilla-like cane notes mingled with fruity, vegetal or grassy flavors.
Most people know cachaça as the key ingredient in the Caipirinha, a refreshing, sweet-and-tart cocktail made with lime, sugar and mint.
In addition to being Brazil’s national cocktail, the Caipirinha has become easy to spot at U.S. bars and restaurants, including a growing array of new versions that add fruit, chile peppers or other flavors.
White (unaged) cachaça like Leblon Cachaça, which mixes cane sweetness with tropical fruit, or Yaguara Cachaça, with its ripe banana and lemongrass profile, is the type most often used for cocktails, including the Caipirinha.
“What I like about cachaça is its sense of terroir,” says Mike Ryan, head bartender of Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. “It has a really beautiful, grassy elegance to it, yet it can also be very powerful.”
In addition to the freshness of unaged cachaça, a growing number of barrel-aged versions are coming to the U.S., layering rich notes of brown sugar, nut and vanilla.
And while people still are getting used to aged cachaça, it’s worth seeking out, particularly for fans of wood-aged spirits like rum and whiskey.
The barrel time creates a tawny hue and a flavor profile similar to classic aged rum. However, these aged cachaças still have underlying notes of ripe fruit or fresh-cut grass, giving them additional interest and making them excellent sippers.
Brands to try include Avuá Amburana, a lusciously honeyed cachaça aged in barrels made from amburana, a rare Brazilian wood; butterscotch-tasting Novo Fogo Gold Organic Cachaça; and Sagatiba Velha, with its graceful brown-sugar flavor.
Ryan admits to a soft spot for the Caipirinha. “It’s basically a daiquiri, with the flavors dialed up a little bit.” But he urges people to sample other cachaça drinks, too. “There’s so much more to it.”
For example, Ryan has experimented by using aged cachaça in stirred cocktails, similar to whiskey. “That big, rich flavor works in brown and boozy cocktails,”
The tiki-inspired Hot to Trot cocktail, another aged-cachaça experiment, has helped introduce newcomers to the spirit, and even those who don’t know it call for the drink anyway.
“We’ve been getting a ton of requests for it,” he says.
Hot to Trot
Recipe courtesy of Sable Kitchen & Bar, Chicago
2 ounces Novo Fogo Gold Organic Cachaça
½ ounce mango purée
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce Cointreau
Lemon wheel or fresh fruit, for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, combine all the ingredients, add ice and shake well. Strain into a Collins glass over pebbled or crushed ice. Garnish with a lemon wheel or fruit of your choice.
South America also has a strong rum tradition, particularly in Venezuela and Guyana, which share a border and a rich history of sugar plantations.
According to Ed Hamilton, who runs the Ministry of Rum Web site, most rum produced in Venezuela has a relatively light character, though some notable offerings are more robust, such as Santa Teresa 1796 and Pampero Aniversario Rum. Venezuelan law requires that all rum be aged at least two years, one of the longest aging laws in the industry.
By comparison, Guyana rum is fruity, rich and full-bodied, made from sugarcane grown around the famed Demerara River (as in Demerara sugar). Suggested bottlings include Pyrat XO Reserve Rum and El Dorado 12-year-old.
Jessica González, bartender at New York City’s NoMad, took top honors in the “Sip a Nightcap” cocktail competition with The Fortune Teller, featuring Venezuelan solera-aged rum; Cynar, an amaro; and Bonal, an apéritif.
The Fortune Teller
Recipe courtesy Jessica González, bartender, NoMad, New York City
2 ounces Santa Teresa 1796
½ ounce Cynar
½ ounce Bonal
In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients, add ice and stir. Strain into an Old-Fashioned glass over a large ice cube.
For example, aguardiente is Colombia’s national drink. It’s not as rough as the name (Spanish for “firewater”) suggests. In fact, at around 60 proof, it’s lower in alcohol than most whiskeys.
Distilled from sugarcane molasses and flavored with anise, some liken aguardiente to a lighter version of ouzo. It’s usually served in a shot glass with a flared mouth and accompanied by sliced limes.
Less traditional but still worth seeking out is Solbeso, a new product distilled from cacao fruit harvested in Ecuador and Peru (not the cacao beans that make chocolate).
It’s clear in the glass and has a rounded, funky flavor that evokes ripe tropical fruit, with a dusty hint of cocoa on the fade. Although Solbeso is distilled in Peru, it is filtered and bottled in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Leblon’s Cedilla açai liqueur is another relative newcomer, hailing from Brazil. The cachaça producer makes this intensely purple, fruit-forward liqueur with açai berries and cachaça. It’s just right when lightened with fizzy soda water.
Birds & the Bees
Recipe courtesy of Solbeso
2 ounces Solbeso
½ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce honey syrup (equal parts honey and hot water)
Lemon twist, for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, combine all the ingredients with a scoop of ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel twist.
- 1Pisco (Peru and Chile)
- 2Cachaça (Brazil)
- 3Rums (Venezuela, Guyana and others)
- 4Other South American Spirits