On the Pisco Pilgrimage in Peru

A trip to three traditional distilleries in Ica valley reveals the fascinating story of Peru's national drink.  
On the Pisco Pilgrimage in Peru
The goodness of sunny, sandy Ica is bottled into some of the best Peruvian pisco. Vast vineyards thrive in this fertile valley at the foothills of the Andes, and haciendas serve up award-winning spirits. Photo by: Beatriz Velarde La Rosa/Getty Images

It was in a museum-bar in the ancient city of Cuzco that I was gripped by pisco, Peru’s beloved white brandy. On that November night, the Andes surrounding the city seemed to breathe out cold air. A light drizzle wet the cobblestoned streets of a city I was slowly discovering: the capital of the Incas still dressed like it were the 15th century. Museo del Pisco, however, was a different world. Hearty cries of “Cheers!” sometimes interrupted conversations hushed and animated. Live music lilted from across walls splashed with trivia on the clear, water-like spirit. “War with Chile” said the writing in one corner, illustrating how Chile and Peru continue to bicker over where pisco was invented.

Pisco Portón, is a leading brand in the U.S., with an alcohol content of 43 per cent. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

Pisco Portón, is a leading brand in the U.S., with an alcohol content of 43 per cent. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

Dario Huaman, the barman, theatrically mixed for me a pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, blending four ounces of pisco, and one each of lime juice, sugar syrup, and egg white. He topped it with some drops of Angostura bitters. For such a simple drink, pisco sour was a jolt of surprise. Its frothy head concealed a delicious mix of citrus and the sharpness of brandy, which according to Huaman came from the Quebranta variety of grapes.

Behind him, rows of curious flavours were bottled tight: ‘Andean Mint,’ ‘Purple Corn,’ ‘Chile Pepper’ and ‘Coca Leaf’ stood beside bottles labelled ‘Pisco Portón: The Finest Handcrafted Pisco. Since 1684.’ The latter is grown, distilled and bottled at a hacienda (estate), the oldest in the Americas, and not far from the Peruvian capital Lima, where I was headed next. Later that night, as I sipped on a zesty Chilcano—pisco mixed with ginger ale and lime juice—I thought of the hacienda. It was La Caravedo, and I pictured vines groaning under the weight of grapes in a sprawling estate, and a passionate distiller telling me why some consider pisco the purest of spirits. It is distilled only once; no sugar, preservatives, not even water are added; it isn’t even aged in wood. It got me thinking: what makes a damn fine pisco?

*** 

Three days later, I leave the baroque churches and the historical centre of Lima, and drive beyond the beach and mazes of shanties. Four hours south along the Pacific Ocean lies the region of Ica whose distilleries and wineries produce some of Peru’s best pisco and wine. Ica valley is wedged between the dry coastline and the foothills of the Andes mountain range and on the way, arid sand dunes are punctuated with lush green fields growing potatoes, avocado, paprika, and native fruits like lucuma. Ica is part of Ruta del Pisco (Route of the Pisco), a government scheme that enables distilleries to conduct pisco tours for travellers.

I begin my pisco tour at the Ica legend, Hacienda La Caravedo, whose premium Pisco Portón is Peru’s largest export today. Master distiller Johnny Schuler, a TV celebrity and an authority on Peruvian pisco, is not in sight. But Fiorella Fernández, the distillery’s cheery manager, sure channels his spirit when it comes to passion about the brandy.

Hacienda La Caravedo. Photo courtesy: Hacienda La Caravedo

Hacienda La Caravedo. Photo courtesy: Hacienda La Caravedo

La Caravedo is just the place to nurse a chilled glass of pisco sour. Vines of grapes trail along every inch of the path that takes me to the estate. The Andes lurk in the distance, and I hear Creole music coming from the orange arched facade of the distillery’s colonial-style bungalow. Beside it is a chapel with stained glass windows and five bungalows open for stays.

Fiorella’s pisco tour is a masterclass on everything pisco, and the distillery is half a time machine, bringing to life 17th-century techniques along with modern processes. After showing me the eight varieties of grapes that can be used to produce pisco (the non-aromatic Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Mollar and Uvina; and the aromatic Italia, Torontel, Moscatel and Alvilla), she takes me to the spot where the grapes have been crushed with a wooden usillo (press) since 1684. The juice was originally fermented in 45 wax-lined brick containers, which have now been replaced by massive steel tanks. What very much are still part of the production process are the three massive wood-fired copper falcas (stills) where the grape juice undergoes distillation and condensation. It is then kept to rest in tanks, for anything between one and four years. “We are part artisanal, part modern. So we call ourselves techno-artisanal,” grins Fiorella.

Later, I sample the famed Pisco Portón, savouring how full-bodied it is. The one I like the best, however, is puro Torontel, for its citrusy, floral notes. Fiorella smiles when I tell her my favourite. “Can you imagine pisco was hardly popular even two decades ago—my parents drank it only at funerals! It has come a long way.” I can see why. (www.lacaravedo.com)

***

Cecilia and Consuelo Gonzales of the Tres Generaciones use traditional falcas and alambiques (copper stills) to distil pisco. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

Cecilia and Consuelo Gonzales of the Tres Generaciones use traditional falcas and alambiques (copper stills) to distil pisco. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

A 30-minute drive from La Caravedo transports me to a distillery that looks right out of a honeymoon planner. Right at the foothills of the Andes, 600 hectares of vineyards glint in the late-afternoon sun, surrounding Hotel Viñas Queirolo. The distillery, which has been making pisco for 100 years and wine for 130, is also a sprawling hotel tastefully done up in wood. Watching me take in the vines climbing the hotel’s sloping roofs, banisters carved with the shape of wine glasses, and murals of the lush fruit central to the distillery, Biera the sommelier asks, “Would you like to drive up to the mountains to watch the sunset?”

If La Caravedo was about the science and legacy of pisco, Viñas Queirolo is about kicking off your sandals and soaking in the place with a pisco (or three) in hand. Sometimes, this happens in the company of the vineyards’ shyer residents. I spot three owls on the way to the mountain, and am told that a fox might pay a visit soon. High up on the slopes, I see large swatches of quebranta grapes. Biera, the manager Adela and I break the ice over glasses of champagne instead of pisco. We watch the sun dip, casting a soft magical glow over the vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Later that evening, Biera brings out passion fruit, lemon, watermelon, green apple, and pineapple to help me distinguish the different aromas in their piscos. The Intipalika Quebranta is citrusy with a hint of floral, while the mosto verde Italia smells like fresh orange peels.

Biera holds up her pisco glass and shows me how to identify a good pisco. “Always look for the lagrimas (tears) on the glass after you swirl pisco in it. Good pisco always leaves its mark,” she smiles. (www.hotelvinasqueirolo.com.)

***

“You must be emotional to make good pisco. Run the place like your home,” says Cecilia Gonzales, one of the three sisters who manages the family-run 1856 distillery, Tres Generaciones, in Ica.

I see what Cecilia means. Behind us in the distillery’s office, her sister Pilar croons to herself while poring over accounts. The adjoining restaurant is large and homey like a family’s living room, and filled with wood-and-jute furniture. A large photograph of Cecilia’s parents and siblings covers most part of a wall.

Consuelo, Cecilia’s sister, joins us, and points to the woman in the portrait. Their mother, Juanita Gonzales, is known in Ica as ‘The Lady of the Pisco.’ “She had the sharpest nose. She’d visit the distillery once a week and sample the piscos with the engineer; she didn’t miss a thing,” remembers Consuelo. Thanks to Juanita’s astuteness, Tres Generaciones’s mosto verde Torontel, pisco Moscatel, pisco Acholado are among award-winning spirits from Ica valley.

The smallest of Ica’s by-lanes have stores selling pisco from local distilleries. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

The smallest of Ica’s by-lanes have stores selling pisco from local distilleries. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

Consuelo prides the fact that their pisco production is mechanised, but never impersonal. Every drop of the 70,000 litres produced annually here has a human touch. Donning lab coats and hairnets, we step into various sections of the distillery that feel comfortingly old-world: the scale of production is smaller than the others; a man—not a machine—carefully washes pisco bottles with a bottle brush. Mother Mary figurines watch over vats that hold condensed pisco. Passing by a sealed room, I wave at 40-something Vielca Lovera, who has been sealing and labelling this distillery’s piscos by hand, bottling 360 bottles a day since 13 years.

For the tasting, Consuelo brings out a milky yellow drink instead of the signature clear brandy. She hides the label and asks me to drink up.

“Is this lucuma… and pisco? And milk?” I ask incredulously. Lucuma is a local fruit with a creamy texture and a caramelly taste, one that I have loved in Peru. Tres Genereciones’s specialty, Crema de Pisco Lucuma, blends the fruit (or vanilla and the custard apple-like fruit cherimoya), with milk and pisco for a rich, mouthwatering beverage. I wonder how Consuelo knows about my lucuma love.

It comes to me then. I had mentioned it in passing earlier that day. And she remembered, just like family (www.piscotresgeneraciones.com.)


Essentials

Ice valley lies 270km/4.5hr south of the Peruvian capital, Lima. Regular buses ply between Ica and Lima daily and Cruz del Sur is a good option. Buses depart from Javier Prado and Plaza Norte (www.cruzdelsur.com.pe; from USD12/Rs780). Taxis are the best way to travel between different distilleries in Ica.

Daily flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Lima require at least one stop at a European gateway city such as Paris or Amsterdam.

Hand-packed Pisco at Tres Generaciones. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

High Spirit

There are three types of pisco: mosto verde, puro and acholado. To make mosto verde—the finest, most expensive pisco—fermentation is interrupted and the wine is still sweet when it is distilled. Pisco Portón is La Caravedo’s mosto verde pisco. Puro, is made from fully fermented wine. Acholado is a blend of two or more grape varietals; it can be a mix of mosto verdes or puros.

  • Kareena Gianani is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?