History of The invention of the calimocho

The calimocho is linked to the old port of Algorta, located in the northeast of the town of Getxo (at the exit to the sea of the river Nervión known as the Abra). This small port currently contains a few very small boats – for those of a certain size have been moved to the modern marina located only one kilometre away – but until the end of the nineteenth century it had its importance because its boardwalk was from which they first saw the ships that approached Bilbao, and therefore was the privileged base for the practices that were offered to the boats to advise them on how to surpass the shifting sandbanks that faced Portugalete. Currently the boats belong to some fishermen – professional and amateur –. Right in front there are lively taverns at lunch and dinner, especially during the holidays.

La invención del calimocho
Puerto Viejo de Algorta (Getxo)

But as the reader can already imagine, the true and little known historical significance of this holy place, a reason for being a pilgrimage centre for revellers around the world, is having been the scene of the process of invention of the drink known as calimocho.

The authors of the birth of calimocho – as in the case of penicillin and other substances of great repercussion – did it fortuitously. It can even be said that they invented the calimocho moved by a “state of necessity”. The protagonists of such an important contribution to the celebrations were a group of about twenty-five boys and girls, between 16 and 19 years of age; who at that time had relieved the previous generation from the responsibility of organising the celebrations of the Old Port.

That summer of 1972, after having made a “study trip” to the San Fermin Festival for inspiration, they drew up a schedule of celebrations that was approved by the Mayor of Getxo, Don Pedro Zubiría y Garnica; and for which they were also provided with some money that the town had offered them as aid. The first thing that the first-time organisers had to do was to pay off the debts that those responsible for the previous year’s festivities had owing to the suppliers of soft drinks, given that precedent the supplier required them to make the payment in advance of the first shipment of the beverages. In addition to the money received from the town council, part of the amount for the festival was achieved through the sale of schedules and commemorative handkerchiefs; and with the remaining money they went to Bilbao to buy five heads of cabezudos (giant-headed carnival figure) with which to motivate the participants.

La invención del calimocho
Don Pedro Zubiría y Garnica

With the help of some municipal employees sent by the Mayor, the group set up a wooden table that served as a bar in the so-called ‘Etxetxu basins’ where they installed the drinks. Lacking fridges, the enthusiastic organisers put ice in metal containers to cool the bottles. In addition to cold drinks, they had purchased two thousand litres of wine from a local vineyard, at a price of 16.50 pesetas a litre. As for the cleaning of the glasses and dishes, lacking a faucet with running water, they put a large plastic tub and filled it with water; and once the water had been degraded by the successive rinsing of the glasses, they emptied it into a drain and went across the square to restore its contents in the fountain.

On the morning of Saturday August 12 1972, the first day of the festivities, two girls of about 11 years appeared at the bar playing the txistu (the Basque flute). Olatz, the daughter of the wine merchant of Algorta who had sold them the wine, and her friend Idoia; were both put in one part of the bar and were supplied with refreshments, so that they continued providing entertainment for the first curious ones that approached the stall.

As the morning progressed, the first adults approached to take a “chiquito” (a small glass of red wine as it is called). It was a few very fast consumptions, since those first customers took a sip, paid and left. Until one of them told them that the wine was sour and that “they were going to poison people with that kind”. The young organisers were, because of their age, little given to the wine and even less experienced with contractual matters, and so had not taken the precaution to try it beforehand. When they tasted it and found it be true, there was a great stir among the group; since all of them were aware that the sale of wine represented the greater part of the income anticipated in the budget of the festivities. Worried about the mess that had resulted from her father’s incompetence, Olatz began to cry.

La invención del calimocho

The local customers comforted the little girl, trying to calm the nervousness created among the young organisers. The adults put to the test more bottles of wine, determining that all of it was sour. One of the improvised advisors, who turned out to be a doctor, explained that sour wine was not harmful to health; just unpleasant to taste. The compassionate adults began to make some suggestions to save the festivities. One of the parishioners ventured the idea of mixing the wine with some soft drink, to see how it would be. They began the tests, using the adults like an improvised focus group of the tastings. Despite the general dislike of the parishioners towards Coca Cola, several of them thought that Coca Cola was the one that best concealed the taste of the sour wine; so that it could be more passable. One of them even pointed out that there were those who called this combination “Rioja Libre” (in the style of “Cuba Libre” made with rum and Coca Cola) and that this combo was already taken by some sybarites from the nearby city of Bilbao.

La invención del calimocho

Testing the quantities of Coca Cola needed to hide the bad taste of the wine, they arrived to the rule that it was necessary to match the amount of the wine and the soft drink. In this way they would be able to offer to the clientele 4,000 litres of this beverage in order to get rid of all the wine stock. One of the advisors thought that they would not be able to sell it nor all over Vizcaya in a whole year, let alone in a few days of this festival of Algorta.

There were also those who thought it would help not to say what the beverage was, keeping it in a certain mystery; also proposing to give it an attractive name. The organisers left that day to have lunch at their homes with several tasks: urgently finding a massive supply of Coca Colas with which to mix the drinks, getting the containers for the new beverage and giving a suggestive name to the cocktail. The supply was obtained through an acquaintance who worked in the distributor of the soft drink, the problem of where to mix the wine and the Coca Cola was solved with an old bathtub that was brought and installed in the stall; and finally, the packaging was arranged by looking for empty bottles through bars and houses nearby (after having washed them one by one in the fountain).

Tired of thinking, there appeared a boy from the village of the nearby town of Erandio – whom they say quite ugly – and whom was called “Calimero”. One proposed that the drink should be given that name; an idea that was liked. Someone else commented that Calimero was rather ungraceful, and someone added that in Basque ‘ugly’ is called motxo, proposing to merge both names; thus giving rise to the name Calimocho, which was quickly and unanimously adopted by all. In this way, on Saturday August 12, 1972, in the morning, the magical formula was found, and at around five in the afternoon the name calimocho was invented.

Years later, once the drink became popular, a brand of soft drinks registered the name calimocho for worldwide commercial use; legally, but without permission of its inventors.

Texto de Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga e ilustraciones de Ximena Maier

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