Perusing Peru’s Pisco

Paul Blow

When you order a bottle of pisco in Ica, a bustling town deep in the heart of Peru, you’re only given one glass—usually a small shot glass—no matter how many people are in your group. The tradition is to pour for yourself and then pass the bottle on to the next thirsty person. When you’ve finished your shot of the strong, clear spirit, you pass the glass. It’s a pleasantly communal, if not terribly hygienic, custom that speaks to the humble, sharing nature of Peru’s people.

Like brandies such as Cognac, pisco is made from grapes. Unlike Cognac, Peruvian pisco is aged in neutral vessels, not oak, so it’s clear and flavored only by grapes. Sipping pisco here at a variety of bars, distilleries, and private homes, I learned that it can take many forms, from a bland, burning aguardiente to a bright, complex bouquet of flowers and citrus. Most piscos go down smoothly, and are relentlessly dry.

The aromatics largely depend on the varieties of grapes used. Quebranta, the most widely planted variety, is a workhorse, able to withstand drought and most vineyard pests. Pisco puro refers to any single-varietal pisco, and most of it is made from Quebranta—often a steady, though not particularly distinguished, spirit. Brighter flavors and aromas come into play with other grapes that turn up as single-varietal piscos, the aromatic varieties called Moscatel, Italia, and Torontel. They offer high-toned floral and citrus notes comparable to those in Muscat and Gewürztraminer wines. Combinations of the aromatic grapes are also blended with Quebranta to make a style called acholado, which is slightly floral and often delicious.

Quebranta is classified as a “nonaromatic” grape. But some younger pisco-makers are wrangling more distinctly floral qualities from it. Diego Loret de Mola agrees that “Quebranta doesn’t show floral, but it can be much sweeter and more attractive than it’s given credit for; its flavors are of sweet fruit.” Rodrigo Bussalleu, who makes Pisco Payet (coming soon to the United States), fashioned a shockingly aromatic Quebranta in 2008 with lovely high notes of geranium, honeysuckle, and orange rind. He suggests that in classifying it as nonaromatic the previous generation simply underestimated Quebranta, and that with solid winemaking and certain distilling innovations (which he keeps secret) it can be shown to be aromatic.

It’s amazing that pisco is still evolving, considering it’s one of the world’s more ancient spirits. The conquering Spanish planted grapes in Peru in the 16th century, and ever since there’s been a continuous flow of wine and pisco. I got a glimpse into that world on a visit to the ramshackle estate of 82-year-old Rodolfo Mejia, who is affectionately known by some as La Leyenda (“The Legend”). Mejia’s property and pisco-making techniques have been passed down through the generations since the 1670s. My group and I sipped his rough-around-the-edges pisco as we shuffled through the fine sand that carpets his land.

Mejia’s pisco, which is not available in the U.S., is not that great. It’s the flat, nonaromatic style of Quebranta. In the stylistic dispute, I fall on the side of finding and preserving the floral beauty of the grapes. Without that quality, pisco is not much different from other strong, white spirits, whether made from cane, grain, or agave. But with those beautiful, floral high tones, there’s nothing like it in the world. And this style works especially well when paired with the soprano pitch of citrus in a Pisco Sour or when just taken straight, as it’s often done in Peru.

In the States, I recommend finding the acholados of brands like BarSol and Conqueror, or any single-varietal bottlings of Italia or Torontel. They capture the singing fruit of Peru and give an indication of what may be to come as the younger generation of pisco-makers takes over.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.