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Cocktails

The Capitán Is Lima’s Old-Guard Aperitivo

September 15, 2023

Story: Nico Vera

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

The Capitán Is Lima’s Old-Guard Aperitivo

September 15, 2023

Story: Nico Vera

photo: Lizzie Munro

For more than 150 years, the Manhattan-like pisco drink has been a Peruvian staple.

On weekend nights, limeños (residents of Peru’s capital) meet up with friends and family at Lima’s local tabernas for the social ritual of conversation over pisco and piqueos—small bites of comida criolla, such as anticuchos, papa rellena, lomo saltado, causa, escabeche de pescado or sanguches, that have cemented Peru as one of the world’s leading culinary destinations over the past decade. And while citrusy and frothy Pisco Sours or refreshing Chilcanos reign during warm summer evenings, winter in the coastal city calls for a stiffer drink, one that’s likely been around longer than either: Capitán.

For more than 150 years—after mid-19th-century Italian immigrants brought Cinzano Rosso to Lima—limeños have sipped the combination of pisco and vermouth; it’s evolved into what’s known today as a Capitán, a simple mixture of the two ingredients in varying ratios and styles depending on the preferences of the person making it. In the 1903 cookbook Nuevo Manual de Cocina a la Criolla, a cocktail recipe titled “other” suggests an early version: 

“Half copa [a small measure] of any strong spirit and another half of Italian vermouth is another enjoyable cocktail without needing to shake it.” 

Italian pulperías (small grocers) served equal parts pisco and Cinzano Rosso at room-temperature in a shot glass. However, with the advent of World War I, local lower-end vermouths replaced the scarce Italian import, and any aguardiente stood in for pisco. So the demoted drink went by the name 20 Centavos, after the lowest-denomination coin.

But the story goes that in Puno, 500 miles southeast of Lima at 12,000 feet elevation, taberneros poured aguardiente and vermouth for military cavalry captains to combat the sierra region’s cold. “Para mi capitán,” for my captain, they said, reverently. The prestigious name migrated to Lima and by the 1920s the registry at Morris Bar, where Victor Morris served Lima’s elite, mentions the cocktail by its new rank—Capitán.

In its purest form, the drink has only two ingredients. Yet the simple template yields complex results by modifying the ratio, pisco grape variety or style of vermouth. And incorporating bitters or olives takes the mixture to the realm of the Manhattan or Martini. Throughout Lima, Capitán variations are as diverse as the bars that serve them.

El Capitan
Recipe

Capitán

A Manhattan-like winter staple in Lima, Peru.

At Central, the Lima restaurant that earned the No. 1 spot in the 2023 World’s 50 Best Restaurants, head bartender David Ramírez prepares his Capitán with Manhattan ratios, using the classic refrescado method: two parts pisco, one part vermouth, plus a dash of Angostura, all stirred in a mixing glass with ice, strained into a chilled coupe, and garnished with green olives. “I prefer quebranta pisco, and for vermouth I really like Cocchi di Torino,” he says. The quebranta grape is the most popular of the eight pisco varieties; its taste is reminiscent of apples, nuts and dried fruit. “The citrus and cocoa botanicals in the vermouth nicely balance the quebranta grape,” adds Ramírez.

For corporate bartender Enrique Hermoza and his team at the Museo del Pisco branches in Lima, Cusco and Arequipa, putting the Capitán on their cocktail menu was a chance to take the drink in several different creative directions.

The Sucio, which translates to “dirty,” is a playful nod to the dirty Martini and mixes an uvina pisco, known for its nuanced green olive aroma, with bianco and dry vermouths, plus a dash of olive brine. “The aim was to develop a white Capitán with the taste of olives but always maintaining the classic Capitán profile,” explains Hermoza. “We pair the cocktail with a side of green olives, to play between eating and drinking,” he adds. His team’s Yuyito, which translates to “little yuyo seaweed,” meanwhile, pays homage to Lima’s coast and its maritime bounty. In addition to pisco and a red vermouth blend, saline solution drops, aji panca bitters, and a dehydrated yuyo garnish round out the drink. “The taste reminds one of the sea,” adds Hermoza.

Perhaps nowhere in Lima is the Capitán more revered than at Bar Capitán Meléndez, the pisco temple with an extensive menu listing an array of neat, shaken and stirred drinks. There, founder and head bartender Roberto Meléndez is a Capitán purist. “The classic recipe is one measure of vermouth Cinzano Rosso, one measure of pisco puro quebranta, refrescado for a few seconds, and garnished with green unpitted olives,” he explains. Meléndez serves it in a chilled glass shaped like the ceremonial Incan kero cup for drinking chicha (an ancestral fermented corn beverage), which elevates the ritual of drinking the Capitán at his bar. “The olive is important in the cocktail; biting it invites a new sip,” adds Meléndez.

Indeed, in one story from the 1872 Tradiciones Peruanas, a collection of writings about creole life in colonial-era Lima when limeños sipped pisco neat, Peruvian writer Ricardo Palma describes the olive’s role as an inseparable partner to a cup of pisco: “la aceituna inseparable compañera de la copa de aguardiente.” And limeños had a term for drinking pisco: “remojar una aceitunita,” to soak a small olive. All that was missing from that tradition was vermouth that would turn the copa of pisco into a Capitán.

Today, nostalgia runs deep in Lima’s veins—from its comida criolla to vals criollo to the literature of Mario Vargas Llosa and poems of César Vallejo that continue to influence contemporary culture. The Capitán is no exception. As with any enduring legacy, the aperitivo continues to evolve, and each version is an opportunity to make something old, new again.

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Nico Vera is a journalist and chef from Peru living in the Pacific Northwest. He’s written about Peru’s food and drink culture for TASTE, Punch, Condé Nast Traveler and more.