Peru's Drink From the Desert

Pisco Sour
Pisco Sour (Dayna Smith - For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I thought I knew pisco pretty well. We're friends. I started drinking pisco sours about a decade ago, right around when the ceviche trend was up and coming. In fact, as a critic for a mid-Atlantic city magazine in the early 2000s, I was moved to call the pisco sour "infinitely more elegant" than either the caipirinhas or mojitos that most bartenders were still just learning how to make.

Pisco: It was a grape-based brandy, clear, not aged in oak, with a bracing and rough 80-plus-proof kick if you drank it straight, which you never did. You used it in a pisco sour or a pisco punch. The Peruvians and Chileans were always arguing over who invented it and who should control the name. Beyond all that, what else did you need to know?

Then I went to Peru a few weeks ago, and now I realize that I hadn't really known very much at all about my friend pisco. I was traveling with a handful of bartenders from San Francisco and with two fellows, Walter Moore and Carlos Romero, who plan to launch a premium pisco in the United States in the coming year. On this trip, Romero, the master distiller, and Moore, his American partner, were developing their acholado, or blended pisco.

Lima was indeed the great culinary hot spot that my colleague Jane Black so vividly described a few months ago ("Marinated in the Morning, Grilled at Night," April 1). But then we rolled out of Lima on a five-hour bus ride south, and the landscape soon turned to desert. We passed the historic port of Pisco and arrived in the viticultural center of Ica, surrounded by giant mountains of sand. There is almost no rainfall. Who knew you could grow grapes in such a place?

We stayed at the oasis of Huacachina, an old resort filled with dune buggies and backpackers, said to be haunted by a witch in the middle of the lagoon who eats men at night. At least one man goes missing every year, according to legend. At night, one traveling companion wandered alone down to the water and claimed, totally freaking out, to have seen the witch. (The jury is out on whether that sighting was pisco-related.)

Peruvian pisco, it turns out, is just as strange and surprising as the region it comes from. The country has more than 300 pisco producers, and the diversity of tastes pressed from the odd varietals of desert grapes is staggering.

Quebranta -- tannic, non-aromatic and very dry -- is the predominant grape, grown along with aromatic varieties such as Italia, Torontel and even Moscatel. All these grapes make pretty terrible wine. But once distilled and left to rest for a few months, they often create a white spirit that's as complex as a white spirit can be. It's important that pisco be produced only from the first press of grapes, and not from the skins, stems and seeds, as is grappa -- and, unfortunately, many low-quality piscos.

Quebranta pisco is labeled "pisco puro"; acholado is a blend of Quebranta and other aromatic grapes and is often more expensive. The dry, non-aromatic Quebranta is the preferred grape of Peruvians; it's used most in blending, and it's probably what most Americans have experienced in their pisco sours. But some younger-generation distillers are experimenting with a higher ratio of the aromatic grapes in their acholados.

After dinner one night, our group tasted a single-varietal pisco made from only the Italia grape. The result was a floral digestif with subtle, fruity notes. The Peruvians among us didn't like it. Many of the Americans, including me, liked it very much. This was a pisco you could enjoy straight, and frankly, it was a better digestif than all but the very best grappas. We suggested that Americans would prefer an acholado with a higher percentage of these aromatics.

But that spirit set off a debate that would continue for days. When blending for the American market, should the producer hold true to what a Peruvian connoisseur recognizes as a fine pisco? Or should the acholado reflect what an American palate would recognize as a fine and approachable distilled spirit? I have no idea what Romero and Moore eventually will decide to do with their acholado pisco. But we get so little good pisco in the United States, I hope they veer toward the latter.

The pisco consumed most often here is the Chilean brand Capel, which sells a mere 15,000 cases each year. After tasting dozens of piscos in Peru, I solemnly advise you to avoid Capel. There are a handful of fine Peruvian piscos on the market, including BarSol, which imports both a Quebranta and an acholado.

Closer to home, however, is Macchu Pisco, which is produced and imported by Bethesda resident (and Peruvian native) Melanie Asher. Macchu Pisco's Quebranta (about $25) is full-flavored and approachable. But its acholado La Diablada (about $35), with its floral and peppery notes, is perhaps an even better place for newbies to start.

Try either one in the accompanying pisco sour recipe I adapted from a hotel barman in Huacachina, who dared to use a blender instead of a cocktail shaker. The drink goes down easy, but don't worry. I promise you won't see any witches.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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