Wine Consumer


Making Pisco in Peru, Virgina Miller

San Francisco has a rich pisco history and a long love affair with the evocative, clear grape brandy of Peru and Chile.

Rustic distillery: Pisco Tres Generaciones in Ica. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)

Being the first US city where pisco was popularized in the 1800′s, it’s no surprise that San Francisco has seen a few pisco-heavy bars open over the past decade (Pisco Latin Lounge, Cantina, La Mar Cebicheria, etc…), just as we were thick with bars like House of Pisco in the 1940′s.

Picking pisco grapes in the vineyards of Ica. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)

Delve into the history of pisco in Gregory Dicum’s The Pisco Book, or summarized in pisco magazine articles I wrote a couple years ago in 7×7and Where Magazine.

Thanks to the education of many passionate Peruvians and pisco entrepreneurs in San Francisco, I’ve been steeped in pisco education the past decade. I’ve visited (and judged cocktail contests) at the crazy-cool ClearGrape warehouse (doubles as a Burning Man art space) on Treasure Island, which imports Oro Pisco, a brand that is everywhere in Peru. Oro producers lovely piscos in each of the eight allowable Peruvian varietals, so a side-by-side tasting proves educational as a comparison of wine varietals. I’ve also tasted with various pisco brand ambassadors, been part of a pisco club, read pisco books, and made countless Pisco Sours and cocktails at home.

Llama topiary at an Ica winery. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)

While the debate between Chile and Peru on who makes the best pisco has raged on for generations (with far stricter standards and processes in Peru), there’s no doubt pisco can be a beautiful brandy. Certainly, there are rough-and-ready releases by the hundreds. But just as with grappa, rustic or flat versions co-exist alongside elegant, refined versions, like Campo de Encanto‘s three releases.

In Peru, pisco is legally allowed to be made with eight different grape varietals. Tasting each varietal side-by-side, as with wine, yields multifaceted and fascinating differences.

When made well, pisco can drink like an eau de vie, as with Encanto Pisco, my favorite and the most elegant of all brands I’ve tasted over the years, including around the country of Peru. Their single varietal Moscatel (floral, refined) or Quebranta (earthy, nuanced) piscos are a revelation, while their standard Acholado (meaning blend, the most common style of pisco in Peru – in their case, made with with three grape varietals) is an idealized example of what pisco can be.

Vineyards of Ica with mountains in the distance. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)

Thankfully, my first trip to Peru this spring was with Encanto during their annual apprentice program. SF residents and Encanto founders Walter Moore, Duggan McDonnell and Peruvian distiller Carlos Romero, spend a significant amount of time in Peru. Their apprentices are top bartenders from around the US who apply to be selected for a small team heading to Lima and Ica, about 6 hour drive south of Lima. The team spends one action-packed week making pisco, getting up close and personal with vineyards and blending, and exploring Lima.

The stills used to produce Encanto. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)

The most memorable day of the whole trip was crushing grapes we’d picked that morning by foot on the rooftop of an apartment in Ica (prime pisco and wine-making region). I’ve picked grapes in a few countries but never have I had such an intimate, earthy, engaging interaction with grapes. It was hours of laughter, getting as messy and sticky as possible, covered in foot-pressed grape juice.

Making bird friends at our Huacachina hotel. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)

I was privileged to learn blending techniques with Duggan, spending hours tasting and nosing varietals to compose the perfect blend. I worked with a teammate to blend our own bottle of pisco, then competed in a cocktail competition using that pisco. We labeled, stirred pisco, got hands-on with production in Encanto’s blending and storage facility (distillation happens in antique alembic stills rented nearby in a well-respected distillery and winery).

Tres Generaciones distillery. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)

For contrast, it was helpful visiting beloved Tres Generaciones‘ distillery in Ica. Though not as ancient as mezcal distillation practices I’ve seen up in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, Tres’ production facilities and methods are still entirely Old World. Naturally, there’s an old alembic pot still, but also open flame and open fermentation. It’s a heartwarming operation complete with the owner looking on peacefully from a rocking chair.

Tasting a batch of pisco they’d just run through the still that morning yielded an entirely different side of pisco: a nutty, buttery, rustic elixir that reflects all the grit and terroir of its surroundings.

I sampled many piscos in Peru we cannot get in the US. None were as texturally interesting as this one from Tres Generaciones, nor do any reach the balance and refinement of Encanto.

Images and stories from one week in Peru are legion. Though all my international press trips are memorable, this trip stand outs, first and foremost because of such an incredible bartending team and Encanto staff; secondly, because of the sweat, dirt, passion and effort I can now taste behind even the most elegant pisco.

Poolside at Hosteria Suiza, Huacachina. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)
Tucked away in the desert oasis of Huacachina near Ica, Peru. Photo: Virginia Miller (2013)
Making friends in the Peruvian countryside. Photo: Virgina Miller (2013)