Pisco Certificate Course- Lesson 3: Eytmology of the Word “Pisco”

 

The evolution of the word pisco occurred through a series of milestones that started in pre-colombia, before the arrival of the Spaniards. The meaning changed in the 16th century, when pisco referred to a region and the people who lived there. The mid 18th century marked the first association with the clear brandy. In 1900, the port of Pisco was named. Finally, now pisco means many things, but it most commonly refers to our favorite spirit.

While pisco has taken on several connotations over the course of 5 centuries, one has remained constant- Pisco has always meant “bird” in Quechua. Quechua is one of many native languages spoken in Peru today. Did you know there are more than 90 indigenous languages spoken in Peru? Quechua is primarily spoken in the Andes. Approximately 25% of the population in Peru speaks it.

The Incas spoke Quechua, but they had no formal written language; instead they used knotted strings known as khipu. Khipu were used for collecting data, keeping records, monitoring tax obligations and many other functions. The cords stored numeric and other values encoded as knots, often in a base-ten positional system.

The khipu system was quite effective, but it greatly differs from our present-day concept of documentation. Consequently, the Quechua word “pisco” wasn’t formally written in Peru until the Spaniards began to transcribe their experiences in the New World. Garcilaso de la Vega, a Spanish soldier and poet, was one of the first to write about the avifauna called “piscos”, as you can see on this slide.

If you have ever been to Peru, you have undoubtedly noticed mass populations of birds feeding in the biodiverse waters along the coast. Upwelling that occurs when the cool Humboldt Current meets tropical waters brings rich nutrients to the surface, creating an irresistible culinary paradise for Peruvian birds. The Humboldt Current is not a new phenomenon, however. In the 16th Century, people dedicated a portion of the coast to the abundant bird population by naming the area “Pisco”. The earliest evidence of this is a map of Peru drafted in 1574 by geographer Diego Méndez, where the port of Pisco is clearly delineated. However, it would take more than 300 years for the Pisco province and capitol to be officially created in 1900.

The people who lived in the geographical area of Pisco were also called “piskos”. They transported chicha, a fermented drink typically made from corn, and other alcoholic beverages in clay pots, which you can see here. Over time, the vessels also took the name “piscos”. To this day, some producers still use these to rest their pisco after distillation.

The first wine was distilled in Peru at the end of the 16th century/early 17th century, but the clear brandy wasn’t called “pisco” for quite some time. According to historian Gonzalo Gutiérrez, the oldest documentation of brandy production seems to be from 1613, in a will of a man named Pedro Manuel. Among the deceased’s possessions were several containers of aguardiente (brandy). This proves that brandy production had started in Peru. However, the first reference to “pisco” as a brandy didn’t appear until 137 years later.

The first association of pisco as a clear brandy is believed to be from a legal document from Lima dated in 1729. In this document, containers of “aguardiente de pisco” were the source of a dispute between two parties. This documentation would mark the new nomenclature for the clear brandy we use today.

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!

The Diversity of Peruvian Pisco

peruvian pisco, pisco peruano, 28 julio

We at PiscoLogía would like to celebrate pisco on 28 de julio, Independence Day in Peru. However, to celebrate pisco, we must celebrate the diversity behind the beloved grape-based spirit.

The first grape vine in South America was planted in Lima between 1539 and 1541 by Hernando de Montenegro, a Spanish captain. In 1551, the first wine was made by Spanish colonists.

The name “pisco” comes from Quechua, the language of the Incas.

The pre-Inca and Inca civilizations created very sophisticated agricultural and irrigation systems. Without indigenous land, agricultural knowledge manpower, viticulture would not have thrived like it has for hundreds of years.

Historically, the people who have planted, harvested and hauled the grapes have been Indigenous laborers and African slaves.

While distillation came to Peru with the Spanish, it is an Arabic technology.

Pisco is the fusion of peoples, cultures, and history. And with each sip we are honoring each and every one.

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