Friday, November 12, 2010

The Making of the Pisco Kid

The Ica Valley is about a 4-hour drive south of Lima on the Pan American Highway, which runs 48,000 kilometres from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. It’s the home to most of Peru’s wine industry and its main claim to fame – so far – is Pisco, a brandy made from grapes. Pisco is the base for the even more famous Pisco Sour, a highly addictive (and deceptively potent) cocktail made with lime, egg whites, syrup, and bitters.

We arrive at El Catador, a small, very tourist-intensive Pisco producer. El Catador uses the traditional artisanal method of producing its Pisco (The guide sidesteps the question of whether they use only that method. Interesting how his command of English suddenly fails him, a common technique that tour guides use when confronted with an uncomfortable question.)

Because of the climate, some wineries can produce two crops in a single year, but El Catador has just one, in March. A batch of Pisco starts out with 2000 kg of grapes, which yields 1600 litres of juice.

They press the grapes by foot, in lagars (stone troughs, just like in Douro at the start of Port production). The Harvest Queen (some lucky teenage girl) starts the foot-stomping and then others join in. Fun ensues. They press the grape skins, stems, and seeds into a pomace cake, which they can use to make grappa.  But that's another story. 

The juice flows into a second lagar. The production process is gravity-fed and so the lagars are at the highest point of the bodega. That’s right, it's all downhill from here.

From the second lagar, they put the juice into clay amphorae, where it ferments for about two weeks. (Depending on the level of sweetness desired, they stop the fermentation so that not all the sugar converts to alcohol.)

Still waiting
Now it’s time for distillation, whereby the wine becomes Pisco brandy. At this point, the wine is about 12% Alcohol by Volume (ABV). They boil the wine over a wood fire in a copper-bottomed concrete still.

Alcohol, water, and other compounds vaporise and collect in a condenser coil, where they change back into liquids. The concentration of alcohol becomes higher in the condensed liquid because alcohol vaporises at a lower temperature than water does.

Once distillation is complete, the 1600 litres of wine yields 400 litres of Pisco. The first 20 litres (the head) has an ABV of 80-85%. Yikes! The next 360 litres (the body) is 32% ABV and the last 20 litres (the tail) is something less than 36% ABV. They blend the head and body to achieve an ABV of 60%. Then they leave the brandy in an open vessel so that the alcohol evaporates until it reaches about 40% ABV.

Not just the alcohol is concentrated through distillation. The aromatic compounds in the wine are changed and concentrated as well, giving the Pisco a different aromatic profile than the wine from which it’s made.

OK, you ask, how’s the result?

El Catador offers us 6 different products to sample:
    Pisco Starting Line-Up
  • Pisco Sour Base (semi-prepared mix of Pisco and lime juice) 21% ABV: refreshing, delicious… the appeal is obvious.
  • Pisco Aromatico (made solely from the Torontel grape variety) 43% ABV: more aroma and taste than Puro, but can you taste anything after the first glass?
  • Pisco Puro (or traditionnel, made solely from Quebranta grape variety) 43% ABV: not much on the nose, just knock it back and hang on.
  • Pisco Acholado (a blend of several grape varieties) 43% ABV: sweeter, smoother, the easiest to drink.
  • Pisco Bourgogne (a mix of Pisco and red fruit juices) 12% ABV: an aperitif…the gateway drug.
  • Crema di Pisco (a mix of Pisco, cream, and fig) 17% ABV: the inevitable Baileys clone.
My preference? Definitely the hi-test, either Puro, Aromatico, or Acholado. All deceptively smooth at 11 am. Put me back on the bus.

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