Pisco, chances are you’ve heard about it, but not many of you have tasted it. And those of you who did taste it, probably tasted it only once. That’s because it’s very uncommon in Belgium, not to say ‘rare’ and we firmly belief that this should change, because you’re missing out on a spectacular drink. Pisco is the very essence of Peru, a country with many facets and a deep history, just like a diamond. Also Pisco is not just for Pisco Sours, it’s much more than that. Read on and discover in The Cocktail Nation’s Special Series about Pisco!We start off with some history.
The answer to the question ‘what is pisco’, 9 times out of 10, will be: ‘it’s a grape distillate from Peru’. Ah, like cognac or grappa perhaps? Well, in both cases: yes and no. It’s actually much more than that. Pisco is distilled from ‘grape must’, whereas grappa is made from just the remaining solids of the grape (after crushing). And unlike cognac it is made from 8 different types of grapes coming from 5 different regions or a blend of these. This actually makes for the huge diversity in flavour pisco has. It is an entire category of spirit on its own.
And if you haven’t already, you need to try it! It’s a must!
A Brief History of Pisco
- Peel Me A Grape
Grapes are a non-indigenous fruit in Peru, so naturally it had to be imported by – yes, you’ve guessed it – the conquistadores. These Spanish raiders said “Hola Peru! Que tal?” in 1532 and the wine they brought was not impressive, not in quantity and certainly not in quality. Which shouldn’t be a surprise if you consider the fact that these bottles would have travelled for a little less than two years in the hull of a 16th century sailing ship from Spain over the Atlantic to South America. It’s actually remarkable that there were bottles that survived – meaning reasonably potable – although they probably resembled Château de Battery Acid. The Spanish were not stupid and common sense (and taste) dictated that any surviving bottles went directly to the church for their religious practices as sacramental wine. At the same time an order was issued that any following Spanish ship should carry vines from the Spanish Empire.
By 1533 the Marquis Francisco de Caravantes brought in the first vines from the Canary Islands and less than 20 years later the first South American wine was produced in Lima (1551), Peru. In 1563 the first vineyards were planted in the Ica Valley. These are the facts of Pisco’s proto-history. The actual origin history of Pisco is a bit hazy and debated, but then again such is the case for any spirit’s history.
2. Is it a bird, a vessel, a people? No, it’s a drink!
What we do know for sure is that in 1580 the fabled Sir Francis Drake took the liberty of relieving the charming town of Pisco of several hundred barrels of ‘aguardiente’ trading them for the prisoners he took earlier. So pisco is named after the village and surrounding area where it is still made? Yes…amongst other things. Let’s talk about the meaning(s) of Pisco first.
The common opinion is that it derives from the ‘quecha’ word for bird (pishqu) and that it refers to a place were birds gathered. It later became the name of the indigenous people who settled there and by the time los conquistadores arrived it was the name of the village were those people (had) lived. Now it happens that these Pishqu People were famous for their pottery, especially an earthenware container which they used to ferment ‘chicha’ in. Chicha is a traditional Andean drink dating back thousands of years. It’s a light alcoholic drink made from fermented maize. It is still made and drunk today, nowadays there’s also a non-fermented variant made from purple maize, very refreshing. Chicha was and still is very popular in Peru. Now back to the earthenware vessel. It kind of looks like an amphora said one Spaniard to another and they started using them accordingly: wine and aguardiente from Pisco was transported in ‘piskos’.
We’re a bit confused whether it was the local people or the Spanish who started to call the vessels piskos. We assume the Spanish, for the simple fact that the vessels don’t look at all like birds, why would a Pisco person call it a pishqu (unless pisco derives from another word of course). Anyway, the most important thing to remember is that the Spanish started to use them to transport wine and brandy-wine.
Of course the indigenous village didn’t survive for very long and in 1572 the Spanish founded a settlement called ‘Santa Maria Magdalena de Valle de Pisco’, the port of which was called: Pisco. Some 200 years later the brandy-wine or aguardiente they produced in Pisco was also (and still is) known as pisco.
So it is undeniable, there’s more to pisco than you think. It’s a valley, a river, a village, a people, a bird, a vessel, a port and a spirit.
3. Pisco becomes popular
Why make aguardiente in the first place you might ask? Well considering knowledge, techniques and materials in the 16th century, we presume it was very rarely consumed in its pure form. It was used in medicines and mostly actually as a preservant for wine. Fortifying wine in order to augment its longevity was a much used and well-known technique by the middle of the 17th century, think of Madeira, Port and Sherry. They first used distilled sugar cane molasses to do this (resulting in the English nickname for Port: Blackstrap). As we all know molasse is a residual product in the making of sugar.
What is the residual product of wine making? Pomace. So, (again) we assume that the Spanish Peruvians were trying to recreate their well-known pomace distillate called: ‘orujo’. And maybe, just maybe, but this is even wilder conjecture, they used not only the pomace, but also the juice of the very first grapes, because these were still (in their early development) unfit to make decent wine from. We definitely need more drunk historians, I mean ‘drinks historians’ of course!
Whatever it was and what it was used for is open for debate, what’s a fact is that it became succesful and popular. To such an extent even that in 1586 the Spanish king himself, Filip III, under the pressure of Spanish wine merchants, issued a ban on the import and sale of ‘vino cocido’ from Pisco in Panama. Vino cocido means ‘cooked wine’ and we all know it’s a very small step from ‘cooked’ to ‘burned’ and get brandy-wine (derives from the Dutch ‘brandewijn’ or burned wine). Filip III needed every penny he could lay his hands on to finance his wars in my country and the Netherlands. By 1595 he demanded 2% tax on the Pisco grape harvest. Twenty years later the vines were ready to produce decent wine and in 1614 we see another royal ban in Panama, this time on ‘any sort’ of wine coming from Pisco and/or all wine coming from anywhere in Peru. Peruvian grapes were hot stuff!
Forced by the royal ban the people from Pisco started to focus on the national market. The city of Potosi in particular was a great, well actually the greatest customer. Potosi was (and still is) a mining city with… 250.000 citizens! Pisco consumption soared sky high! According to Francisco Lopez de Caravantes (from the Spanish mainland) in 1630 (!) aguardiente from Pisco was considered the finest in the world and a fierce competitor for their Sherry. By 1764 more Pisco was produced than wine!
4. The Shavings of Cherub’s Wings
In the middle of the 19th century Pisco had a small depression, mainly because farmers started to grow cotton instead of grapes. The cotton price was very profitable because of the American Civil War. After the war Pisco became very popular in America especially in San Francisco during the Gold Rush.
And it was in 1889 that Rudyard Kipling wrote the following famous lines about Pisco:
” It tastes like the shavings of cherub’s wings,
the glory of a tropical dawn,
like red clouds of sunset
and fragments of lost epics by dead poets.”