For better or worse, one of the most popular activities among backpackers in South America is drinking. With Irish bars and traveller dives springing up across the continent, it seems impossible to avoid. But instead of paying extra for imported beer at the hostel bar, why not drink like a local and get to know the culture, by following this guide to the national drinks of each country…
Peru – Pisco
First up it’s the backpacker’s favourite cocktail, Pisco Sour – made from Pisco, egg white, lemon juice and sucrose. Sounds disgusting, but I assure you they are amazing when they’re done right (when done wrong they can give you serious tummy issues) and you can’t travel in South America without trying at least one!
Peru’s national spirit of Pisco is made from various types of grape, and is also claimed by Chile as their own invention, sparking an ongoing feud between the two countries which still hasn’t ended, despite a recent international court case confirming that the spirit was indeed created by Peru! Peruvians love their Pisco so much that they hold two days a year to celebrate it: National Pisco Sour Day is the first Saturday of every February, while the forth Sunday of every July is Día del Pisco.
Try if for yourself: Follow this recipe.
Brazil – Cachaça
The national spirit of Brazil, Cachaça, is a liquor made from sugarcane juice which is similar to rum and comes in clear and golden varieties. It’s the cheapest drink available at every supermarket, where you can buy this 40% alcohol in small plastic bottles for around £1! One of the best places to try the spirit is Paraty, a town a few hours south of Rio where dozens of Alambiques (stills) can be visited for tasting sessions and tours.
Cachaça is the main ingredient in the Brazilian cocktail Caipirinha, which is starting to pick up popularity in the UK. The liquor is mixed with limes, sugar and ice for a sharp and super refreshing drink – not to be missed when in Brazil!
Try it for yourself: Follow this simple recipe.
Argentina – Torrontés
It’s surely impossible to think of Argentine cuisine and not think of wine and steak! Some of the best wines in the world come from the fertile soils of Argentina’s wine regions, particularly Mendoza, where more than 60% of Argentine wine is produced – and where wine can be bought for about £2 a bottle. The best known is Malbec, but the grape native to Argentina is Torrontés, which produces a fruity, floral and quite dry white wine which – if you’re serious about wine – has distinctive peach and apricot aromas. If you’re not a wine connoisseur, all you need to know is that this is a lovely, fresh white wine that goes well with seafood and spicy food.
Bolivia – Singani
Heading north into Bolivia, the national drink of choice is Singani, a brandy grown from Muscat grapes in a specific region of the country. The drink was originally developed by Spanish missionaries, who imported the grapes to make wine for mass and decided to distil a spirit, as well, to sell to the silver-rich landowners in the then wealthy mining town of Potosi.
Singani is smoother than most other spirits native to the continent, and it’s low methanol content means that it can be drank straight quite easily – if you like that kind of thing. If you don’t, just mix it with Bolivia’s other favourite drink, Coca Cola, and a slice of lemon to make a Poncho Negro.
Colombia – Aguardiente
Colombia’s national spirit, also distilled from sugarcane juice like Cachaça, is one of the most disgusting spirits I’ve ever had the misfortune to drink! It has an aniseed flavour like Sambuca or Ouzo and packs a serious, firey punch to the back of the throat – the name literally means “firewater” in Latin! Although it is awful (sorry, Colombia) many travellers make aguardiente their drink of choice simply because it’s the cheapest alcoholic drink on offer: a 70cl bottle can be bought for about £2 in most supermarkets, and a cheap soft drink can almost disguise the flavour of the spirit.
Aguardiente, however, can be redeemed in the form of Canelazo – a warm cocktail which mixes the spirit with agua panela (a hot sugarcane drink) and cinnamon, served with sugar around the edge of the glass/mug. Perfect next to a roaring fire on a chilly evening in the Andes!
Try it for yourself: Pick up a bottle of Aguardiente and follow this recipe.