Pisco is a clear grape brandy that most people recognize as the main ingredient in a pisco sour, a cocktail created nearly a century ago when an American bartender working in Peru allegedly ran out of whiskey for a whiskey sour and decided to use the local moonshine instead. Pisco is also a small, sleepy port town about 150 miles south of Lima. There isn’t much to see in the town of Pisco: a ton of pisco was shipped out of there, but not actually made there. In the greater Ica region, however, there are several distilleries — bodegas — to visit, from sleek new facilities with shiny high-tech equipment to tiny, rustic operations where chickens peck through discarded grape skins and workers nap in the shade while the magic of distillation takes place.
Ica is Peru’s second-biggest tourist destination after Cusco, where Machu Picchu is. The region is home to the mysterious Nazca Lines, huge hieroglyphs taking the shape of cacti and animals that have been preserved in the sand for some 1,500 years. Some people believe they were left by extraterrestrials and not the ancient Nazca culture. Another popular attraction in the area are the Ballestas Islands, near the resort town of Paracas. Sometimes compared to the Galapagos, they’re rich with marine fauna, like guanay guano birds (the ones whose poop is considered a valuable fertilizer), Humboldt penguins and sea lions. Regardless of what sights you’re there to see, you’re never too far from a fresh, tart ceviche and a cold, frothy pisco sour.
At La Caravedo distillery in Ica, a new energy-efficient facility was built in the shadow of an old one — the oldest working distillery in the Americas, so the story goes. It’s where Pisco Portón is made now and where pisco has been distilled since as far back as 1684. The distillery overlooks the vineyards, where grape varieties like Quebranta, Albilla and Torontel grow. It’s something of a thrill for Peruvians who visit when the master distiller is there: Johnny Schuler is a famous chef, restaurateur and TV personality. He’s also one of the country’s most vocal pisco advocates. He helped turn his popular television series Por Las Rutas del Pisco into an actual Ruta del Pisco: a pisco trail that traces the country’s main distilling hubs.
“I collect, drink, even shower with pisco,” says Schuler. “I believe it’s the best spirit made from grapes in the world.”
Wait a minute: better than cognac? Schuler points out that other grape brandies, like cognac and armagnac, get most of their flavor and character from wood barrel aging. Pisco is unique in that it’s bottled un-aged and at the same proof as when it comes off the still. Just about every other spirit you can think of, from tequila to scotch, gets watered down to a lower bottle proof. With pisco from Peru, that’s illegal.
Schuler’s own pisco is even rarer because it’s made in a style called mosto verde or “green must.” It’s a traditional style where the first step of the production process, the fermentation of the grape juice into wine, is cut short before it’s complete. This means that the juice still contains sugars that have yet to be converted into alcohol by the time it goes to the second stage of the process: distillation. The result is a rounder, sweeter, more aromatic final product. Taste a mosto verde next to a conventional pisco and you’ll wonder why they stopped making it the old way. (Answer: it’s a lot cheaper to let fermentation finish; you get more booze that way!)
Not far from La Caravedo is Lovera Pérez, a small bodega that offers a glimpse into what pisco production was like before the advent of marketing departments and stainless steel tanks. The grapes are crushed in an old open-air stone winepress called a lagar and distilled using the energy of wood-fired ovens. Old men pass around a plastic water bottle and tumbler, whiling the afternoon away with a clear liquid that definitely isn’t water. Here the finished pisco is stored in long clay pitchers called botijas.
No visit to Peru’s pisco country is complete without a good, old-fashioned argument about Chile. The two countries have battled over everything from territory to potatoes. And they both claim to be the originators of pisco. Without getting into the debate, here are a few facts: Pisco, the Peruvian town, was founded in 1640, while Chile christened its own Pisco town in 1936. Peru’s pisco rules are much stricter than Chile’s (no aging, no additives, not even water). And several classic pisco cocktails — the gingery Chilcano, Manhattan-esque El Capitán — were perfected in Peru. Travel the ruta to decide for yourself.
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