There are many ways that the countries of South America express their culture, but few are as spirited (excuse the pun) or indeed as enjoyable for visitors as through national signature drinks.
In the course of five months and many alcohol-fuelled nights travelling across the continent, I endeavoured to try the various quirky beverages available along the way. After all, it would be silly to come all this way and just order Heineken, right?
Here are a few of the liquid highlights I encountered during this time, some great albeit hazy memories.
Our South American journey began in Lima, Peru. You can’t go far here without encountering pisco sour, a sharp-tasting cocktail made with pisco (a fortified brandy that tastes a little bit like tequila), egg whites, lemon juice and sugar or syrup.
This drink is literally everywhere in Peru, and – as we would later discover – Chile as well. The two countries contest an animated rivalry over where it originated; both claim it as their national drink. I actually preferred the milder-tasting Chilean version, which usually doesn’t use egg white, but shhh… don’t tell any Peruvians I said that.
In Peru you’ll find chic dedicated bars serving all sorts of flavours, from root vegetables to passion fruit. Look out for locals drowning in the stuff late into the night with platters of olives and meats and cheeses. On the budget end of the scale, you can just take a walk around any urban bar area to find ‘happy hour’ (typically several hours) discounts. For travellers, most hostel bars offer pisco sours, and usually at cheaper prices than out and about.
Perhaps the best-known cocktail of South America is Brazil’s caipirinha. You can get these in London made with vodka, but true caipirinhas are made with the Brazilian liqueur cachaça, lime and sugar. If they made it like this back home I don’t think I’d drink anything else.
The ultimate way to enjoy a caipirinha is at one of the dozens of bars along Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, all competing to give the best offer. Another great option is the night street stalls in the city’s famous Lapa area, where you can find giant caipirinhas with lime or peach for 5 reais (about a quid).
Liqueurs, shorts and shooters
Everybody who has travelled in South America will know about dulce de leche, a sweet, thick caramel-esque sauce made with milk and sugar. It is used on everything, everywhere and eaten at any time of day. It’s a staple on bread or cake at breakfast, smeared on pastries, rolled into pancakes, and the core ingredient of most desserts and sweet snacks.
This craze is at its most intense in Argentina, where you can find supermarket shelves lined with an alcoholised version of the stuff: dulce de leche liqueur. Think chocolate Baileys but with a caramel twist. Bottles of the most common blend by Tres Plumas are remarkably cheap (typically 35 pesos, about one pound fifty), or souvenir shops sell more luxurious versions, in particular down in Patagonia.
Over in Uruguay the taste in sweet alcoholic drinks is slightly more refined. At the end of a walking tour in Montevideo we were treated to a sample of grappamiel, the country’s celebrated honey wine. It was immediately obvious why street musicians like to sup this in the winter; it warms your insides good and proper. It is traditionally served in a short copa or in a tall glass on ice, but cocktail bars also experiment with novelty flavoured versions.
For a mid-night-out boost, just like Europe the jager bomb is the go-to solution across much of South America, but one hostel chain in Bolivia has its own take on the alcoholic energy drink. We stayed in Loki in La Paz, which churns out hundreds of blood bombs in its seventh-storey sky bar every night. Even so, after a good few nights of fuelling our city mayhem with these, we still weren’t sure exactly what went into them – my best guess is vodka, grenadine and a local brand energy drink.
The downright bizarre
It was in Chile that we found some of the more unusual drinking habits on the continent. One of the country’s signature cocktails is the terremoto, which translates as ‘earthquake’, and I can attest that it lives up to the name. Served by the pint, the prime ingredient is pipeña, a fermented Chilean wine. Add a dash of grenadine, and finally a large scoop of pineapple ice cream – yes, you read correctly – and you have your terremoto. You can order it red or white.
For the authentic terremoto experience, head to La Piojera, a rough-and-ready bar in the middle of Santiago teeming with locals clocking off work. Be warned though, just a pint of it is enough to send the most hardened of drinkers a little bit crazy.
Another Chilean peculiarity is jote, a fifty-fifty mixture of red wine and cola popular among young folk in the coastal city of Valparaíso. Quite understandably though, vino fanatics tend to frown upon the concoction as an unthinkable monstrosity.
The best of the wine
Aside from the quirky beverages, South America’s most famous alcoholic export comes from the vineyards. Argentina and Chile are the foremost wine producers and compete at it fiercely. Chile might make the best pisco sour, but for me you can’t beat the red stuff across the other side of the Andes.
I never quite saw myself as a wine connoisseur, but a few days on the Argentinian wine route altered my aspirations in that department. Mendoza is the country’s vino capital, home to around two thirds of its wineries, and there’s no better way to enjoy the city than by touring a few of them on a bicycle.
A thousand kilometres up the famous Ruta 40, Cafayate is the hub of the northern wine region, flanked by sloping mountains on one horizon, red rocklands the other, and gorgeous vineyards in every direction as far as the eye can see. Most of the bodegas are a short drive outside the town, but in the centre we found Nanni, one of Argentina’s few organic wineries. After trying out the wine tasting for 50 pesos each (a couple of quid), we splashed out 420 pesos (less than twenty quid) on their most expensive bottle on sale, a secret blend gran reserva. Classy as ever, we saw it off in plastic cups on our campsite with some budget olives, cheese and meat from the local supermarket.
The best of the beer
Always a beer lover at heart, I was happy to discover that the craft beer craze slowly engulfing Europe in recent years has filtered into South America as well. Every step of our journey there was little shortage of independent cerveza artesanal outfits to satisfy our beery needs.
An Argentinian beer label Patagonia produces craft beer en masse. While it will set you back three times the price of a standard lager in supermarkets, it’s worth trying at least once. On our last night in Buenos Aires we treated ourselves to a bottle of Patagonia 24/7, a brew that was created as a limited edition for a festival last year, but proved so popular they added it to their national lines.
Everywhere we travelled there was always a regional flagship lager, too: Brahma and Itaipava in Brazil, Huari and Paceña in Bolivia, Escudo and Kunstmann in Chile, Pilsen in Paraguay, Quilmes and Schneider in Argentina to name a few. My pick of the bunch takes me back to the beginning of the journey in Peru, where we drank oodles the smooth amber lager Cusqueña.
And there we have it. I write this with a twinge of nostalgia and more than a hint of a hangover in Queenstown, with those South American nights fading into history. Reading back over this has made me thirsty, though, and I am told that New Zealanders make a pretty mean wine too…