New Orleans has many reasons to appreciate South America. It is an excellent trading partner. It is a beautiful continent to visit. Their foods are really pleasurable. And lately we’ve been enjoying some pretty good wines and excellent spirits from Argentina, Chile, Peru and Brazil.
We are going to have to forgive them for, or just get over, the nutria. This oversized rodent, a native of South America, is wreaking havoc with our wetlands and levees. In retrospect, it does not seem to have been such a good idea to bring the damn pest here in the first place, which we did to revive the flagging fur industry. We should have seen that coming; once a lady knows what wore her pelt before she did, she won’t even want the thing in her closet.
But it’s the spirits thing that will be the focus of our discussion today, and we are the beneficiaries of at least two outstanding examples. Cachaça (cuh-sha-shŭ) is a white rum and is the main ingredient in the caipirinha (cap-a-reen-ya), the national cocktail of Brazil, which is really just cachaça, lime, and a bit of sugar. It’s a simple drink, quite refreshing, and refers to rural locals or caipira. In our country we have a similar term (hillbilly), but not an associated drink. Brazilians are cooler than we are in that way.
The other very popular South American spirit, Pisco (pee-sko), is the ongoing subject of an intense dispute between two nations. Peru and Chile both claim this grape brandy as their national drink and, if you want to rile the emotions of any citizen of either of those countries, mention that you think the other country has a better claim to the rights for calling Pisco their national beverage. I don’t know why you would want to do that, but sometimes too much Pisco can make you feisty.
Chile’s claim is that it has taken Pisco to new heights never achieved by Peru. Chilean Pisco production is now 50 percent higher than Peru’s, and Chile seems to have taken the time to create new recipes to broaden the use of Pisco, such as the Piscola, which is Chile’s answer to the Cuba Libre. In this case it’s Pisco and Coca-Cola.
Peru has hung its claim on a few of the recipes that it created, such as the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch.
Peru also has a port city on the west coast that is called Pisco, because essentially that is where the beverage began. It seems that before Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the Peruvians had a native drink, chicha, which was made from fermented corn and water.
When the Spaniards arrived, they were not so fond of this drink, preferring instead their native sherry, made primarily in the Jerez region of Spain. They wanted something alcoholic and made from grapes.
Amazingly the Spaniards discovered a way to grow grapes in this arid, desert area. Several centuries before the Spanish arrived in Peru, the Incan emperor Pachacutec desired in marriage a lady from the countryside. Quite an amazing step for an emperor to take. Even more amazing, the lady turned down the Emperor’s proposal and instead wed her true love, a commoner and a farmer. And the Emperor never demanded the lady’s hand in marriage, nor did he pitch some fit of jealous rage which would have been expected from such a high personage. Instead he took the lady’s decision with the grace of a gentleman, and then offered as a wedding gift to her anything she desired.
She, being a practical woman, asked the Emperor to bring fresh water to her desert town. Within fifteen days, an army of 40,000 laborers created a 30-mile channel from the Andean-fed River Ica to her town.
When the Spanish saw this project in Incan historic documents, they renewed and expanded the water flow of the Achirina River and in the late 1500’s were able to plant grapevines, using the river as the irrigation source. These vines, more than 100,000 acres, furnished the necessary raw material for the Peruvian “brandy,” Pisco.
In the 19th century, Phylloxera, a root louse that attacks grapevines, wiped out much of the Peruvian vineyards. Replanting was not done, with the Peruvians preferring instead to focus on cotton and other fruit crops.
Chile, on the other hand, possessed natural barriers like tall mountains and large bodies of water that prevented the spread of Phylloxera, a benefit that has protected to this day the Chilean and Argentinean grape plantings of malbec, carmenere, pinot noir and other major grape varietals. Peru has, just in the prior century, decided to once again use its fresh water source for grape irrigation and has come back to Pisco production.
So the war of words and international trade continues, with Chile saying to Peru, “You gave up on this product and now it is ours;” and Peru saying, “We have a city here with the name of the spirit and we had Pisco first.”
Either way, consumers have some wonderful choices to make. Chilean Pisco is actually, after distillation, quite strong so it is often diluted with water. Peruvian Pisco is not diluted since it is a smoother, more approachable spirit after distillation. Chile also uses wooden kegs for aging the spirit while Peru primarily uses steel or glass. For this reason, Chilean Pisco takes on a bit of a yellow cast and maybe a woodier taste, while Peruvian Pisco is usually clear, a bit cleaner.
The alcohol proof levels for Chilean piscos is 60 to 100 proof (30 to 50 percent), with the Peruvian product coming in a bit lower at 76 to 96 proof (38 to 48 percent). (Keep in mind that Chile dilutes with water their Pisco after distillation.)
Both countries make use of the muscat grape as a main source, and in Chile, the torrontel and the Pedro Jiménez varietals are also used. In Peru the highest level of Pisco is made exclusively from the quebranta. Chilean Piscos are usually a blend of several grape varieties. Peruvian Pisco is usually the expression of only one grape type.
Pisco is an incredibly refreshing spirit, and it is best used in cocktails, with the most famous being the Pisco Sour:
2 oz Pisco
1 oz. fresh lime juice
¾ oz simple syrup
1 egg white
1 dash bitters