Piuchiu, the Pre-Columbian Peruvian Distillate
Pisco came to existence after King Philip IV prohibited the importation of Peruvian wine in Spain in 1641, forcing locals to distill their fermented grape juice into clear brandy. In “Pisco: its Name, its History”, Gonzalo Gutiérrez highlights how pisco production increased after this restriction. According to Gutiérrez, the Jesuit Order was largely responsible for the significant brandy production in Peru, especially in Pisco and Nazca (51). Since that time, our favorite distilled spirit has become one of Peru’s most significant cultural symbols.
However, while the Jesuits and colonizers are responsible for pisco’s growth, distillation existed long before the arrival of foreigners to Peru. According to T. Fairley in The Early History of Distillation, Peruvians were distilling native materials before colonization. He states: “In the 16th century, the Spaniards found the Peruvians using an apparatus of this kind…It is probable that the Peruvians used this apparatus long before the date of the Spanish conquest. ”(560). The image below depicts the still described by Fairley (561):
So what were native Peruvians distilling with this fascinating contraption? According to Fairley, piuchiu was the spirit of choice, made from fermented corn or yuca (known as chicha). Chicha is heavily consumed in Peru, especially in the Andes, where chicherías provide locals with endless supplies of the tangy corn ferment. A red plastic bag tied to a stick marks the entrance of a chichería, typically inside someone’s adobe home.
While fermented chicha is ubiquitous now, oddly you won’t find piuchiu in Peru. Somehow this distilling custom went out of practice. So how was piuchiu made? After fermenting the corn or yuca, the native Peruvians placed the fermented liquor, “into a deep earthen pot, having a hole in the side near the top, through which passes a wooden gutter of the form shown, connecting the receiver. Over the top a pan, filled with cold water and luted to the pot with clay, is placed. This acts as the condenser and the spirit flows along the groove into the bottle or receiver” (561).
Another more rudimentary variation of a still was documented by Édouard Charton and illustrated by Édouard Riou in Le Tour Du Monde: Nouveau Journal Des Voyages. As seen below, the fermented liquid was boiled in a ceramic urn. Sheepskins were then hung over the boiling pot to catch the vapors. Once wet, the sheepskins were wrung out to extract the alcohol as it accumulated.
In summary, while colonizers should receive credit for widespread distillation in Peru’s pisco-making history, T. Fairley’s research demonstrates Peruvians were distilling native ingredients before their arrival. In the end, this information is further proof of Peru’s diverse history, culture and delightful culinary portfolio.
Charton, Edouard, 1807-1890. Le Tour Du Monde: Nouveau Journal Des Voyages. Paris: Libraire de L. Hachette,
Fairley, T. The Early History of Distillation. Harrison and Sons, 1907.
Gutiérrez, Gonzalo. Pisco: Its Name, Its History. Editorial Académica Española, 2020.