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Cocktails

The Chirulín Is Peru’s Original Pisco Cocktail

January 18, 2024

Story: Nico Vera

photo: Punch

Cocktails

The Chirulín Is Peru’s Original Pisco Cocktail

January 18, 2024

Story: Nico Vera

photo: Punch

In the country’s El Ingenio district, Afro-Peruvians have served the cinnamon syrup–laced drink for generations.

Since the colonial era, Black communities along Peru’s arid coast have strived to preserve their identity through food, music, dance, poetry and religion. Cooks spice a hearty carapulcra potato stew with ají panca; cajón drummers mark the syncopated rhythms of festejos; violinists accompany tap dancers’ zapateo criollo; poets recite storied décimas about their Black heritage; while confraternities congregate for spiritual celebrations. And at El Ingenio, a town of a few thousand people, there’s a cocktail that connects Afro-descendant Peruvians to their ancestors: the Chirulín, a sour with an aromatic and spicy twist that predates the famed Pisco Sour, Chilcano and Capitán.

For generations, ingenianos (people from El Ingenio) have prepared their Chirulín in large jarras (pitchers). “It’s a cocktail that consists of pomelo, pisco—a good pisco—and agüita de canela (cinnamon tea) with its sugar syrup,” says Afro-Peruvian educator Florencio Ferreyra. “We mostly prepare the cocktail for our patronal feast, when everyone can savor this Afro-descendant drink,” he adds. On the third Sunday in August, during the festival for La Virgen del Carmen, thousands of revelers of all ages fill the streets to celebrate their patron saint with dancing, processions, Mass and ubiquitous jarras of Chirulín.

Four centuries ago, El Ingenio (Spanish for “the sugar mill”) was an epicenter for the Viceroyalty of Peru’s sugar cane and wine production. There, enslaved people from West Africa labored at Jesuit haciendas that distilled sugar cane juice into aguardiente de caña (rum) and harvested grapes to make aguardiente de uva (pisco). 

Beyond sugar cane and grapes, colonial foodways brought pomelo, grapefruit, mandarin and lime to the region. And canela (cinnamon)—in food and drink—has always been a staple in Afro-Peruvian kitchens. “Agua de canela (cinnamon tea) is a mate that our ancestors drank, it’s something special,” says Afro-descendant cook Celia Guadalupe. Since all the ingredients for a Chirulín were present in El Ingenio at least two centuries ago, it’s easy to see how ingenianos combined pisco, pomelo, agua de canela and sugar to craft their Chirulín, likely the oldest pisco cocktail. 

Pisco scholar and Gothenburg, Sweden–based bar manager José Quintanilla remembers the first time he tried the drink, on his initial trip to El Ingenio in 2011. “It was a hot summer day and I was thirsty, so I found a local bodega and saw a group of senior Afro-Peruvian men drinking from a shared glass they refilled from a jarra,” he says; it reminded him of the Incan ritual of drinking chicha beer from a communal kero cup. “They offered me some and I drank it all at once, thinking it was fruit juice, but it had alcohol and it was delicious,” exclaims Quintanilla about his first taste of a Chirulín, which was soon followed by another.

Since then, Quintanilla has returned to El Ingenio to interview elders such as Ferreyra and to continue researching the Chirulín’s history. Over the years, his work introducing the drink to bars outside Peru has earned him the title of El Ingenio’s Chirulín ambassador. 

Chirulin Pisco Sour Recipe
Recipes

Chirulín

A grapefruit-based spin on the classic Peruvian drink.

For single servings, Quintanilla uses a shaker, but for large orders, he builds each drink in an Old-Fashioned glass with ice by stirring the pisco and cinnamon syrup, topping it off with pomelo juice, and garnishing it with a pomelo wedge and cinnamon stick. About the pisco grape variety, he says, “I prefer torontel or moscatel pisco; the aromatic grapes complement the pomelo.”

Destilería Andina brand ambassador and bartender Tatiana Flores’ interest in the Chirulín was piqued a few years ago when she came across a recipe for the cocktail at Lima’s Bar Capitán Meléndez during a spirited sobremesa (conversation) with friends. Since then, she’s noticed the Chirulín at more bars around Lima. “Right now there’s a Paloma boom, not with tequila but with Peruvian spirits like cañazo (rum), so it’s easy to introduce a [similar] cocktail like the Chirulín.”

Flores prefers a pisco blend that combines aromatic and nonaromatic grapes. “I didn’t want a dry cocktail, so instead of quebranta I use an acholado pisco; it goes well with the citrus,” says Flores. Ingenianos sometimes use grapefruit instead of pomelo, as does Flores. “I [also] add lime to increase acidity and balance out the flavors,” she explains.

She shakes the pisco, grapefruit and lime juices, plus cinnamon syrup with ice, then serves it on the rocks with a cinnamon stick and grapefruit peel or wedge. “It’s a very democratic drink, and I really think everyone will like it,” she says, finding the Chirulín more versatile and crowd-pleasing than the drier, more spirit-forward Capitán and even the Pisco Sour.

In Nasca, 25 miles south of El Ingenio, Eduardo Castro Capurro is an elder in the Capurro Pisco family. The nonagenarian has fond memories of enjoying the Chirulín for two decades, between 1958 and 1978, during annual celebrations at El Ingenio. “I used to drink a Chirulín or two or five at the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul at Hacienda San Pablo. We would go to Mass—that was the most important part—and then we would eat lots of chicharrón and enjoy free-flowing Chirulín,” says Castro Capurro with a smile, recalling how sipping a Chirulín with hot cinnamon tea warmed the soul during the celebrations in the middle of Peru’s winter. “It is cold in June, some years colder than others, and the Chirulín is pleasant, calientito (warm), and not too strong; I liked it a lot,” he adds. As to a garnish for the cocktail, he says, laughing, “The flavor is already in the drink—why would you add a decoration?”

Only a decade ago, the Chirulín was little-known outside El Ingenio, but today, bars in Lima, Houston, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Barcelona and beyond feature the cocktail on their menus. And just like the food, festejos or décimas of Black Peru, the drink—whether it’s stirred or shaken, on the rocks or warm—is infused with a soulfulness that makes it a truly original pisco cocktail and a proud embodiment of Afro-Peruvian culture, wherever it travels.

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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.