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On the Pisco Trail

From pisco sours to purple corn juice, Peru offers a diverse drink culture.

 

Story by Tim Leffel

Photos by Olaf Hammelburg

 

The Pisco Punch cocktail had a mixed meaning in San Francisco during its 19th century gold-prospecting days. Legend says new customers were only allowed one, since “it would make a gnat fight an elephant.” The other punch in its name came from its effect: the cocktail went down easy, but came back with a wallop later.

It was a long journey from Peru to northern California back then, but traders sailing up from the Pisco port brought their local grape brandy with them. A bar owner at the Bank Exchange & Billiard Saloon concocted the Pisco Punch (a mixture of pisco, lemon juice and pineapple juice), and it caught on like a gold rush rumor, with pisco becoming San Francisco’s top-selling spirit. Today, however, the Transamerica skyscraper stands where the barstools were. And pisco? It’s now about as common as the sight of gold prospectors with pick axes.

Travel to Peru though and you’ll see Pisco Sours served in most bars or restaurants, along with local beers, Peruvian wine and a strangely popular yellow soda called Inca Kola. Peru presents a few different faces even to visitors on a short vacation: the Inca highlands with the oft-trekked Machu Picchu, the Amazon jungle, colonial town squares and the modern sophistication of Lima’s wealthy suburbs. The country’s drinks cover an equally varied spectrum.

 

Bringing Back Pisco
In the world of spirits, Peru’s pride and joy is pisco, a traditional white grape brandy. It’s smooth but strong, and ranges from mild-flavored, for mixing in cocktails, to more aromatic versions made for sipping neat. Joan Peterson, co-author of Eat Smart in Peru, says that the upper crust of Lima, Peru’s capital city, may be drinking imports these days, but pisco is still the thing to drink before dinner. “It is almost traitorous to not have a bottle of pisco around,” she says. Don’t dare bring up that “other pisco” from Chile during a dinner conversation, though. There’s a simmering cross-border dispute about who invented the stuff and which version is better. After dinner, Peterson is partial to the Algarrobina Cocktail, a chocolaty blend of pisco, cinnamon, a native carob syrup, an egg yolk and evaporated milk. Scrumptious, but not exactly a diet drink.

Pisco may have been all the rage in California before Prohibition, but today it is essentially off the radar in North America. The U.S. imported only 15,000 cases of it last year, an amount that is a mere rounding error in the tallies of the leading cognac or cordial brands. But the brandy has been making appearances on ambitious cocktail menus for a couple of years, usually in the form of the Pisco Sour.

One of pisco’s biggest advocates in the U.S. is Diego Loret de Mola, president of spirits retailer BevMax International. A native Peruvian and tireless promoter of its national drink, he is doing his best to make the BarSol brand, known as Mendiola in Peru, the next big thing in the U.S. “We are at a stage where America is in love with all things Latin,” he says. “Peruvian ingredients and food are starting to take off in the U.S, so we think the next step will be drinks.”

Loret de Mola and other pisco champions are trying to tap into the current classic cocktails rage, adapting old drinks to modern times. Making the Pisco Sour into a barroom regular could be a challenge—it uses egg whites and bitters, so it’s not as simple as whipping up a martini—but variations on the original Pisco Punch are simple. Through smart marketing, brands like Don César and Machu Pisco are leading the way into the American mainstream.

Peruvian pisco is a unique spirit. The grape crushing starts off like winemaking, automated at the big companies and with stomping feet at the small ones. After distillation in steel or copper stills, it goes straight into huge clay pitchers or other neutral vessels to age for three months, skipping the oak barrel aging process employed by so many other spirits. The result is a flavor that comes only from the fruit itself. It’s similar in this way to unaged silver tequilas.

Pisco also stands out in that it’s bottled at the same level of alcohol as when it was produced: companies can’t add water to fine-tune the proof, so they have to get it exactly right the first time. Per Peruvian governing body regulations, the alcohol percentage must be between 38 and 48 percent.

Despite the production restrictions there are some 250 official producers in Peru, along with hundreds of small family producers working a single still. The output comes in several varieties, including pure varietals (pisco puro), a blended version (acholado), and one made with partially fermented grape juice, retaining more sugar (musto verde).

From corn spit to goblet
If you spend time with the working class Andean people of Peru, you won’t be drinking pisco. Instead you’ll down chicha, a sweet and sour, foamy fermented drink that was merely ground corn just a few days earlier.

A bright purple non-alcoholic version called chicha morada is available everywhere and mass-produced like a soft drink, but the alcoholic kind is very much a family affair, usually served in humble surroundings. If you see a red jug or flag protruding from a stick on the side of a house in Peru, you’ve found a house of chicha where anyone, including a thirsty trekker, can knock on the door and order. “Often you’re sitting down on stools in the brewer’s own home,” says Peterson.

Peru expert Leo Garofalo, assistant professor of history at Connecticut College, says chicha is by nature a “drink local” product. It is made with a short fermentation process and it doesn’t keep very well. “This is not a drink you can transport across bumpy mountain roads,” he says. There’s one other aspect that makes this brew a little too local for some. “Traditionally, you kick off the process by chewing the corn and spitting it into a bucket—this would start the fermentation.”

Garofalo says the best way to try chicha is in a Sacred Valley town such as Pisac or in the San Sebastian and San Geronimo parishes of Cusco, heading out of town toward the Sacred Valley and the Inca Trail. In these places, full-time chichas make the brew from their own recipe and serve it with humble local food, such as fried pork skins or boiled potatoes with cheese, in a very bare-bones restaurant with just a few tables and chairs. Some will mix in a highland fruit like strawberries or sweet, white chirimoya, or sprinkle oregano on top for digestion.

In 2004, an archeology group discovered an ancient chicha brewery at the mountaintop town of Cerro Baúl. At the site, estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, the archeologists discovered several keros, big decorated wooden drinking mugs. Today you can drink from the same kinds of mugs, always made in pairs, with the restaurant owner noting how many you have downed with chalk marks on the table. You can’t beat the price. A round for yourself, your buddy, and eight new friends will cost you one U.S. dollar.

Hyped up on tea
The history of coca is convoluted, involving religion, tradition, labor practices and then the drug trade. Long before the Spanish arrived, the Andean people chewed coca leaves, also the source for cocaine, to provide stamina and as a social lubricant.

Coca really hit the big time when it became an ingredient in liquids. In 19th century Europe, Vin Mariani coca wine was a fixture in the homes of literary luminaries. Kings and presidents sang the elixir’s praise, and two popes endorsed it. Coca extract got an even bigger boost when it was added to Coca-Cola. Eventually, however, all such coca tonics and extracts disappeared from U.S. shelves.

In the Andes, coca leaves are still as core to daily life as the sunrise and prayer—and often all three are intertwined. When coca leaves go into a tea, however, it’s thought they move up the income scale. “Peruvians in general who don’t do manual labor use the tea to distance themselves from the indigenous past,” Garofalo says. “Making it a tea makes it more European, less working-class.”

Of course, plenty of tourists drink it as well, mainly to stave off altitude sickness. For most people, mate de coca is the most effective remedy for arriving in Cusco straight from the lowlands. Big batches of coca tea are a fixture on the Inca Trail hike through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu. It’s a simple affair: just leaves steeped in boiling water, which comes out tasting like a strong, bitter green tea.

Forget bringing a box of teabags back on the plane though. In Peru, coca tea is served at official embassy functions and the poshest hotels, but U.S. customs will still confiscate it at the airport. In actuality, coca tea is to cocaine what poppy seed bagels are to heroin, but that distinction is lost in the war on drugs.

Peruvian wine steps up
Chances are you haven’t heard much about Peruvian wine. Until recently, there wasn’t much reason to seek it out. Diego Loret de Mola says the grape-growing industry is just hitting its stride again after being decimated in the last few decades of the 20th century, when vineyard lands were among those the government released to peasants, most of whom repurposed the land for basic survival crops.

Only a few vineyards and wineries survived. It wasn’t until things calmed down politically in the ’90s that production ramped up and grape-growing began in earnest again. The label of Peruvian wine you are most likely to see in a restaurant or store in the United States or Peru is Tacama, the leading exporter. “Tacama Selección Especial [made from French varietals Tanta and Petit Verdot] has an extraordinarily intense complexity with perfect balance, and a long and aromatic finish,” says Gino Pacheco, sommelier at Cusco’s Hotel Monasterio. “It is a dense red wine, with reflections of ruby and purple and an aroma that evokes fruit, plums, licorice and a predominance of perfectly ripened grapes.”

Other widely distributed wines are made by Ocucaje and Vista Alegre (the latter also produces pisco). Both produce a range of red and white blends from several grape varieties, including Malbec and Torrontes from Argentina and more traditional grape varieties originally from France. A few small producers are trying a craftsman approach with a single varietal, but even at the top quality level, most of what’s on offer are blends.

For the most part, Peruvian wines won’t dazzle you, but be sure to order a bottle with dinner in Peru or in a Peruvian restaurant somewhere else. Even at the high end, prices are reasonable. At the low end—as in $3 a bottle in a Peruvian store or a free glass with dinner at a Cusco restaurant—the wine is more likely to be average than bad.

 

Check out the July/August 2007 issue of Imbibe for recipes and sidebars on coffee, beer, and Peruvian drinking customs.

 

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