Pisco Certificate Course- Lesson 1: Overview of Pisco
When the first wine was made in 1551, it marked the beginning of a new enological era in the New World. However, it wouldn’t have been possible without the agricultural prowess of Peru’s natives, who were experts in cultivating and irrigating the arid coast. Their expertise and manpower, combined with the demanding manual labor & agricultural knowledge of African slaves, made grape-growing highly successful in Peru.
By the end of the 16th century, the popularity of Peruvian wine posed a formidable threat to the Spanish wine industry. In an attempt to hinder wine production in Peru, Spanish royalty imposed high taxes, banned Peruvian wine in their colonies and prohibited the planting of new vines in Peru. However, they weren’t successful until 1641, when King Philip The Fourth prohibited the importation of Peruvian wine to Spain, cutting Peruvian vintners off from one of their last remaining markets.
Instead of abandoning their vines, locals began to use the grapes to make brandy. In the tradition of the Old World’s firewater, they called this grape distillate “aguardiente de uva”, following alchemical methods from the Middle Ages. Eventually, the name changed to “pisco”.
Over time, the viticultural knowledge of the Spanish blended with agricultural traditions passed down from the Incas and African laborers. Years of trial and error led to diversification and selection of the best varieties, identification of optimal regions for grape growing and improved production practices. These factors, along with a climate favorable to grape growing, have allowed Peruvians to proudly craft their national beverage for hundreds of years.
Pisco is defined by the Denomination of Origin as “the product obtained from the distillation of fresh musts of recently fermented pisco grapes”. If you are new to pisco, you might not know what musts are. Must is freshly crushed grape juice that may contain some skins, seeds and possibly some stems. Depending on their preferences, master distillers in Perú may leave some skins, seeds and stems in the must during maceration.
Maceration is the process of soaking all or some of the skins, seeds and stems to extract aromas and flavors from the skins and transfer them to the juice. According to the Peruvian Technical Standards, fermentation may occur with or without maceration, or with partial or total maceration of the pomace. It depends on the preferences of the master distiller. However, the must has to be separated from the pomace before distillation because ONLY wine can be distilled in Peruvian pisco production.
The rich history of pisco shows in the traditions performed throughout the entire pisco-making process, starting with agricultural and spiritual practices in the vineyards and ending when the pisco is consumed. We will cover every my noot detail of those processes in this course, but for now, let’s talk about harvest.
Harvest of pisco grapes happens in Fall in Perú, typically in March or April. The ripe berries are plucked from the vines, giving the master distiller the raw materials needed to craft the perfect batch. The grapes are destemmed and crushed and maceration may or may not occur. With the help of yeasts, the sugar converts the grape juice to alcohol and the juice becomes wine, ready for distillation.
Making pisco is a demonstration of the craft, skill and scientific knowledge of the distiller. While the wine heats up, boils, evaporates and then condenses into pisco through a scientific process, intuition tells the distiller when to cut the heads from the tails, how to manage the environment, to regulate temperatures and make other very important decisions to obtain a quality product.
Once distillation has converted the wine to pisco, the brandy must rest a minimum of 3 months in neutral vessels such as stainless steel or fiberglass. This makes pisco completely transparent and unaltered, allowing you to fully appreciate the original identity of the spirit. After resting, it can be bottled and is ready for consumption.
Peruvian pisco is unique because it is distilled only one time, making it different from other brandies that are distilled more than once and watered down to proof. That means a master distiller has only one chance to craft an exceptional pisco at the desired proof. However, the ABV must be between 38 and 48%, according to the Denomination of Origin in Perú.
Since nothing is added to Peruvian pisco, that means there is only one ingredient in the bottle: grapes. So, just how many grapes are in one bottle? On average, there are an incredible 7.5 kilos, 16.5 pounds packed in one bottle of puro or acholado, the most common types of pisco. On your screen, you can see how that compares to wine and mosto verde piscos. Next time you go to the grocery store, try to buy 16.5 pounds of grapes and you will get an idea of just how many grapes that is!