Pisco-Sipping in Peru

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Never refuse a free drink. A sound policy, but my commitment is wavering as a Peruvian Woody Allen look-alike (same physique, head shape and beady, bemused gaze) leads me around an oddly appointed brandy cellar, doling out shots of liquor from centuries-old clay casks.

"Here," El Woody says in ragged English, pulling my focus away from a stuffed alligator sprawled beneath a painting of Jesus. "This needs to age more, but it's almost finished product."

I was in Peru to investigate the production of pisco, the grape brandy that anchors the pisco sour cocktail. If you haven't heard of pisco sours, don't feel ignorant: The drink, which also includes egg white, lime juice, syrup and bitters, is nowhere near as ascendant in the United States as the mojito or the name-your-fruit-or-vegetable-tini. But in Peru and Chile, it's downright revered.

I first drank pisco on a trip to Peru in 1994. That raw drink, acquired in the jungle, had a bouquet similar to that of turpentine. But I'd heard recently that the pisco industry was enjoying a renaissance. So in late April, I headed back to check it out.

My friend Bill and I were in Peru's arid South Coast region, outside the town of Ica, in Bodega Lazo, one of dozens of pisco distilleries that offer tours. The bodegas we visited are old, family-run properties that showcase how Peruvians have made pisco since the brandy was first concocted in the 18th century (in response to a 17th-century ban on wine by the king of Spain, who also ruled Peru at the time). The bodegas make artisanal pisco -- no chemicals, sulfites or mechanized production -- and feature open-air yards ringed by cement vats, wood-burning ovens, rows of casks and welcoming tasting areas.

Sufficiently liquored up, I sit down with Lazo owner Elar Donayre Bolivar and lurch from "Annie Hall" into "The Godfather": Bolivar is an ursine man with a palpable impatience for small talk. He answers a few questions -- his forebears founded Lazo in 1809, he produces 100,000 liters of pisco a year and some wine, all sold in Peru -- then waves a massive arm toward an employee, who offers us a tour.

The early stages of pisco production mimic winemaking: Grapes are piled into vats (lagares) to be crushed. The resulting juice (called "must") is transferred to clay casks that were handmade in this region 200 years ago to ferment, then into large kettles, where it is heated slowly. The liquid vaporizes and then re-condenses as it travels through a pipe submerged in cool water, after which it emerges as pisco, ready for aging.

Now, before you book your Sideways in Peru Boozapalooza, please understand: Peru's main pisco production area is in the Ica region, a four- to five-hour drive south of Lima, and this is not the Peru of brochures: no terraced Andean peaks, rainbow-hued birds or llama-herding nomads. Peru's South Coast is hundreds of miles of barren desert and often rough beaches, bisected periodically by fertile, river-fed valleys, the produce basket of the nation. That said, the region has its natural highlights: the subtle allure of coastal desert and some decidedly unsubtle wildlife.

* * *

One morning we take an oversize speedboat from the small town of Paracas, about 50 miles north of Ica, to Islas Ballestas, a cluster of rock islands 30 minutes offshore. Our boat, like the others filing out of the marina, is full: Norwegian nurses, British backpackers, Italian lovers and Peruvians. After a brisk dash across open water, we find the islets shrouded in seasonal fog. Thousands of pelicans, cormorants, Peruvian boobies and a few vultures jockey for rock perches amid families of sea lions and diminutive Humboldt penguins while our tour guide shouts out species IDs.

The birds and the lions come to eat fish. The fish ride here on the Humboldt current, a nutrient-rich conveyor belt that sweeps out of the South Seas and squeezes against the Chilean and Peruvian coast. The current helps make Peru one of the most productive fisheries in the world: As much as 20 percent of the world's seafood catch comes from the current's ecosystem, according to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. (The Humboldt also explains coastal Peru's desert climate: The current cools the marine air, squelching potential for precipitation.)

The fish-birds-sea-lion thing makes sense. Beyond that, things get a little gross: For centuries, people came to Islas Ballestas not for wildlife but to harvest bird poo. Yep, guano, loaded with nitrogen, made for a potent fertilizer, and it amassed on Islas Ballestas in layers up to 100 feet deep, our guide tells us. In the mid-1800s this was Peru's main export. There's still an old guano factory listing on the rocks of Ballestas. Modern farming techniques have cut the demand for bird spatter, but controlled guano harvests still occur every decade. We motor around for 45 minutes as the residents squawk, yowl and dive around us. It's interesting, especially one strip of rocky beach packed with barking lions, but the boats stay in motion to avoid hogging viewing spots, and the result is tough photo conditions and swirling diesel fumes.

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