It was only by sheer luck, right when I happened to be one stuffy, six-hour bus ride away from Peru’s pisco-making capital of Ica, that BarSol Pisco founder Diego Loret de Mola would also be in town. The Lima native now makes his home in Stamford, Connecticut, but visits Ica up to eight times each year to check on operations at Bodega San Isidro, a venerable pisco production facility with a history that dates back to the late 1800s. And in mid-March—late summer in South America—this meant that harvest was in full swing, with trucks arriving heavy with grapes ready to be sorted, de-stemmed and gently pressed.
We first toured El Catador and Tres Generaciones for a look at artisanal pisco production as it was once all made. However different their processes and regulations, pisco has been a tradition in Peru and Chile since the conquering Spanish brought distillation to the continent. Decades of military junta rule in the mid-20th century effectively killed off pisco, except at small family-owned restaurant/distilleries such as these, to which Limeños would escape during the city’s gloomy winter. Otherwise, the product was industrial, adulterated—think bathtub gin during American Prohibition. “If you drank pisco then, you were crazy,” Loret de Mola recalls of pisco’s dark days.
So when he launched BarSol in 2002 and entered the U.S. market in late 2004, Loret de Mola did so as part of a vanguard of producers looking to introduce pisco to the world. “We don’t sell pisco; we sell Peru, the whole culture,” Loret de Mola says. “It’s about so much more than just being in the pisco business. Otherwise, I’d make vodka.” And these days, what it’s about is education. There is no official pisco council; the producers self regulate for the most part, he says. But a committee is forming, and those on the forefront will be the ones charting the course as this spirit gains popularity thanks to bartenders and mixologists.
In bars and on menus, pisco is one of those polarizing spirits like gin, tequila and cachaça: Its devotees are discerning and loyal, while neophytes are completely in the dark; call it “South American grape brandy” and their mind-palate connection simply shorts out. So what does pisco taste like? Well, it tastes like pisco. Fermented grape must—wine, sort of—is distilled in copper pot stills. But that’s where the romance ends. There are no cool, dark caves of Peruvian pisco sleeping in charred barrels—it’s neither Cognac nor is it bourbon or Scotch. In fact, its closest kin would be silver tequila and rum, or single-distilled vodka—spirits in which you can still discern and appreciate the quality of the original product: in this case, the grapes.
Peruvian laws dictate that the spirit not be stored in anything influential (i.e. wood). So while some small bodegas still keep their Roman-style amphorae around for aesthetics or experimentation, most pisco goes into stainless steel vats or giant inert plastic drums. Grapes must come from specified states and DOC regions; otherwise it’s called simply brandy or aguardiente. It must be made from any of eight permissible grape varieties, and since it’s distilled to proof and nothing is added, Loret de Mola says, “The most important thing is your grapes!”
Depending on where you shop for booze, you’ll either encounter a piteously small pisco selection or an overwhelming one. At either, look for Barsol’s seven piscos—three of them mosto verde—and the new Perfecto Amor, a sweetish pisco-based aperitif that is just now being released in the U.S. Perfecto Amor is historically something producers would make for personal consumption, and it, too, nearly died after Peru’s era of agricultural reforms. But you can’t keep a good liquor down.