Discovering Pisco

of Héctor Vazquez 20 settembre 2021

Ph. Karina Mendoza

Simply describing it as the distinctive ingredient in the famous Sour drink is at best an oversimplification. After taking a trip to Peru Maurizio Maestrelli talks about pisco, a spirit with a long and fascinating history behind it, regulated by rigid, strict specifications, but most importantly boasting a broad range of nuances that merit exploring - in three different varieties: Puro, Acholado and Mosto Verde.

Ph. Karina Mendoza

When I plan a press trip I always try to prepare properly, whether it's just one day or an entire week. I hate getting there just carrying my bag and my ignorance with me. 

Since I was about to leave for Peru to learn more about pisco, the least I could do was have a few warm-up Pisco Sours at a couple of places in Milan that I felt were up the challenge of vigorously shaking egg white - a key ingredient in the recipe - into a compact, snow-like froth.

Ph. Karina Mendoza

So here I was in Lima, the capital of the country, stuck in a kind of traffic that is to Milan's what an experienced cardiac surgeon is to an Operation champion, adequately armed with the knowledge that pisco is a grape spirit, the Pisco Sour is delicious and properly shaking egg white takes well-trained arms.

As it turned out, I hadn’t come as prepared as I’d thought. Visiting two distilleries a day would eventually change my mind within a week. Being in Peru certainly meant being in the one and only birthplace of authentic pisco. The very sensitive issue of whether it was the Chileans or the Peruvians who were the fathers of the spirit, comparable only to the historical bitter enmities between Italian city states waging war on each other for years in the Middle Ages, was ruled in favor of Peru.

This is not just because Pisco is actually the name of a town in central-southern Peru, the capital of the Ica region founded in 1640, roughly a hundred years after the arrival of the Spaniards led by Francisco Pizarro; nor is it just because of a statement written by Chilean author Isabel Allende who, in her book My Invented Country, confesses, “We have unceremoniously appropriated the name of this spirit from the city of Pisco, Peru”; but rather because of an obscure Greek who, after arriving on the Pacific coast from the Mediterranean island of Corfu and reinventing himself as a winemaker in Ica, signed a will dated 30 April 1613 bestowing a gift of a barrel of aguardiente on one of his employees. 

Ph. Karina Mendoza

Aguardiente was distilled from the same grapes that were used to make wine, especially in the early years. That's right, wine – one of the first things my Peruvian friends never failed to repeat at every turn is that pisco is made from wine. Wine was necessary for the pious conquistadores to celebrate mass – as devoutly Catholic as they were ruthless in conquering with sword and cannon yet another kingdom after the Aztec empire. From its original religious purpose, wine soon took on such a relevant social and economic dimension that in just a short time Peruvian wine started traveling back to Spain, retracing the route that had originally brought the first vitis vinifera to the country.

Things went just fine so long as Peru’s wine exports were irrelevant or nearly so. But when Peruvian wine became a serious competitor for Spanish wine things took a bad turn, and the sensitive sovereign of the empire "on which the sun never sets" had to cave to the riotous local winegrowers. A tax was introduced that was unsustainable to the good Peruvians, who responded as many winemakers still respond to a crisis today: they started distilling.

Pisco was therefore a product of economic necessity in response to the Motherland's protectionism, but it immediately became a roaring success. In Peru, of course, but also on other trade routes that were soon established along the Pacific coast and that found an exceptional outlet in the city of San Francisco, at the time in the midst of the gold fever. 

Brainwashed as we are by western movies, where every stop at a saloon seems to require drinking whisky, it may seem odd to think that these pioneers, miners, thugs and law enforcement officers spent their evenings chugging bottles of pisco, but that is a fact. And it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the first "pisco cocktails" to achieve fame, and to have come down to the present day, is the Pisco Punch, invented by Duncan Nicol at the end of the nineteenth century right in the City by the Bay.

Foto di Maurizio Maestrelli

Indeed, the Pisco Sour, although prepared for the first time in Lima, testifies to the role the US played in the whole story, as Victor Morris – the bartender who came up with the cocktail's ingredients and preparation technique – was an American immigrant from Salt Lake City. 

But let's shelve this topic and go back to pisco, at least for now. Right from the first distillery I visited, I knew this spirit was not at all a monolith devoid of nuances or diversity.  

Ph. Karina Mendoza

I got the first – albeit vague – hint of this during my hours-long van ride, which I spent admiring the uninterrupted ebb and flow of the Pacific waves on my right and, on my left, nearly desert areas interspersed every now and then with greener, cultivated strips. 

The latter are shallow valleys following along streams flowing from the Andes into the ocean, and that’s where the Pisco vineyards are nestled. 

The legendary Pan-American Highway, stretching from Alaska down to Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of the South American continent, crosses all of the pisco terroirs – from the Lima region in the north down to Tacna via Ica, Arequipa and Moquegua. 

These are the pisco regions as established by a Decreto Supremo in 1991, which among other things recognizes pisco as one of Peru's Appellations of Origin. The Supreme Decree also states that in order to be defined as such, Peruvian pisco must meet several requirements – specific production areas being just the first of many. 

Ph. di Karina Mendoza

Another requirement regulates admissible grape varietals. There are eight of them, equally divided into aromatic and non-aromatic.  The first group includes the Italia, Torontel, Moscatel and Albilla varietals. In the second group we find Negra Criolla, considered the first vine variety to arrive in Peru supposedly from the Canary Islands, as well as Uvina, Mollar and Quebranta. The latter is the only one Peruvians view as truly indigenous and is definitely the most widely used to make pisco. The name derives from the grape bunches being so heavy they often break the shoots they hang from. 

In addition to just eight admissible grape varieties, production is also very strictly regulated. It starts from freshly fermented grape must, which is column-distilled only once in a charentais-type still or in the more traditional falca. It's then left to rest for a minimum of three months without bringing down its 38% to 48% ABV with water or using barrels, barriques, tonneaux or anything made of wood. 

Peruvian pisco is crystal-clear like spring water, to the point that it's very easy to get confused if a glass gets misplaced during testing. Until, that is, you hold the glass up to your nose – that’s when the magic happens and the "monolith" shatters. 

Ph. Karina Mendoza

Every single pisco has its own unique personality and interpretation. With Pisco Puro, i.e., distilled from a single grape varietal, each glass turns into a kaleidoscope of fragrances and flavors deriving from the grape and the terroir where it was grown. With Pisco Acholado - which can be made from a blend of different grapes, different fermented musts or even different kinds of Pisco Puro - the surprises depend on the skill of the person analyzing its flavor profile, bouquet, body and palate length. The third kind of pisco, Mosto Verde, is made by interrupting fermentation early on when not all of the sugar has been transformed into alcohol. This allows the fresh taste of the fruit to really explode in the mouth, almost like crunching grapes under your teeth.

In short, in just one week I went from being an occasional Pisco Sour drinker to a serial pisco sipper in its purest form, stripped of any ornament – whether it be egg white, vermouth as in the El Capitan cocktail, or ginger ale as in the long drink known as Chilcano. 

However, after sipping an unbelievable number of different piscos and drinking it in almost endless cocktail variations, from classic to experimental like the ones mixed by talented bartender Aaron Diaz, founder of the Carnaval Bar in Lima; after seeing hundreds of piscos, terracotta amphorae once used to transport the spirit; after eating a few kilos of Quebranta grapes and petting a typical Peruvian dog, hairless like a newborn child but definitely more wrinkly; after trying all kinds of ceviche and munching on the traditional cuy chactado, the skin of a guinea pig fried to crispy perfection; after all this, the picture I cherish the most from my trip to Peru, the one that forever converted me into an amateur pisquero, is a gentleman dressed in white, with a wide-brimmed hat and a face marked by countless days in the sun, asking one of his employees to put more wood on the fire burning under a cauldron while calmly watching the crystal-clear liquid flow from a nozzle directly into a glass, which he then offered me with a smile. This is the heart of distillation, the heart of pisco, the heart of the Peruvian people.