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Making Pisco in Peru

Fabiano Latham | 01/06/2016

Fabiano Latham from Chotto Matte recently travelled to Peru to immerse himself in the pisco culture. From history to pork-infused spirits, this is his journey.

Day One:  Casa Inca – Sex Pots – Central – Hemmingway Pisco Sours

Mike and I arrived buzzing in Lima airport at 8.30am after a spectacular flight with views of the sunrise over the Andes from Bogota. Our host, Melanie Asher was waiting with her man-of-a-thousand-jobs/legend Juan Carlos. Our first move was to survive the Lima traffic and check in at our coast-side B&B in Miraflores, Lima.

The Boutique hotel named Casa Inca was famed for being where the father of Peruvian archaeology lived, Julio C. Tello. We had a quick breakfast in the patio consisting of mini bananas, golden berries, cactus fruit, grenadilla, passionfruit, toast with guava jam and omelette. Our minds were already blown by the fact that we had avocados, cherimoya (custard apple) and guanabana trees in the courtyard.

Melanie empathetically offered us the opportunity to have a siesta before cracking on but we politely declined – eager to explore the melting pot of cultures and cuisine that is Lima. Our first stop was the Museo Larco named after another archaeologist Rafael Larco Herrera. The collection features over 50,000 pieces of ceramics, textiles, woodwork, sculpture and metal work from the Cupisnique, Chimú, Chancay, Nazca, Moche and Inca cultures including a highly amusing, pre-Colombian, erotic ceramic section (#sexpots).

I can only describe is as the most concentrated educational hour I’ve ever had. It set the scene for the whole trip and we related back to it regularly throughout the rest of our time there. We learned about the past 5000 years of Peruvian cultures and how the Inca’s were only really around for 100 years or so before the Spanish conquered all (1532). There were actually 87 different civilisations. The indigenous peoples apparently mastered brain surgery and mummification and there were 3500-year-old, perfectly preserved burial cloths featuring the three symbols that pop-up throughout Peruvian history – the bird, the cat and the snake (heavens, earth and after life).

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We also learned about all the different ecosystems in Peru due to the three different habitats – coast, Andean highlands and high and low jungle. It was time to go and further explore these different ecosystems by visiting ‘Central’ – the fouth best restaurant in the world where head chef Virgilio Martinez celebrates the extreme biodiversity of Peru.

Head bartender Davide welcomed us, an extremely talented dude who seemed very friendly (although he could’ve been calling us berks for all I know – my Spanish is Llama lame). He made us a selection of delicious aperitifs – two twists on the El Capitan (a kind of pisco based Manhattan) and a white grapefruit and thyme Chilcano (pisco and ginger ale). The guy had a rocking ice programme on the go and innovative glassware to boot. Before we started to feel too ‘jetlagged’ (pisco’d) we stepped into the old converted town house that was the setting of the restaurant. The tasting menu featured 14 dishes that spanned the different ecosystems and altitudes from coast to Amazon. Clams from -20m below sea level, Lucuma from 1050m above sea level and coca leaf smoked bread from 3900m up in the Andes. Each dish was paired with different wine including an unctuous Kabinett Riesling and a red from Quebranta grapes that 70% of pisco is made from. Our visit culminated in a kitchen and herb garden tour where we smelled, touched and tasted huacatey (Peruvian mint), lemon verbena, quinoa and different Aji (chillies).

Culinary minds fully blown we were taken on a tour of central Lima, the cathedral square where Francis Pizzaro (Conquistador) had his house and where the fountain sits that once a year is filled with pisco to celebrate Pisco Day. It was about 5pm and we were ready to try our first authentic Pisco Sour so Mel kicked our pisco bar crawl off in hotel Maury, where a 75-year-old bartender called Eloy Cuadros used to serve Ernest Hemingway Pisco Sours. I luckily avoided offending Eloy by asking if he knew Victor Morris (inventor of the Pisco Sour) when I remembered Morris died in 1929…This Eloy dude wasn’t that old! I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to have a Pisco sour masterclass by Eloy. He explained he uses 3 parts Macchu Pisco (felt more like 12 parts…) to one-part key lime juice and one-part syrup (1.5:1 sugar to water simmered with cinnamon and orange).

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Eloy garnished his sours with one drop of Peruvian aromatic bitters which will end an on-going tedious argument at Chotto Matte where bartenders insist on garnishing lavishly behind my backs with two or even three drops of bitters and elaborate flowing patterns created by sweeping garnish picks through the silky foam. Next stop was the Country Club where we tried 4:1:1 Pisco Sours using La Diablada. It was here in the impressive gardens that we coined the phrase/hashtag ‘side-bush’ as Mel didn’t know what a hedge was…

Our third and final pisco stop was at El Capitan Melendez run by ex-Country Club bartender Roberto Melendez. It all gets a bit hazy here but we enjoyed La Diablada Pisco Punches for sure and Roberto invited me behind the stick to shake up my own Pisco Sour. I managed to pour egg white all down my front – real smooth… Finally, rather than going for a drunken kebab we opted for some Peruvian rotisserie chicken and a final Cusquena (Peruvian lager). As we strolled along the Costa Verde me, mike and Vance shared a knowing glance as if to say ‘what a first day…’

Day 2: Afro-Peruvian cuisine – Cock Fighting – Pisco Tasting – Octopus Ceviche

I woke up at 4am due to the six-hour time difference feeling extremely disorientated. I decided to take a walk along the coast looking out at the surfers in the Pacific Ocean. Inspired by the constant stream of joggers I decided to do one push-up…

Back to the hotel we enjoyed the same exotic breakfast as yesterday before meeting Vance and Mel and jumping into Juan Carlo’s car to make the two-hour drive along the Pan-American high-way along the sea-front to Chincha. We got some bottled Chilcanos at a service station en route and I used my one Spanish phrase – donde esta la bano? (where’s the bog?). We stopped off in Chincha to try some Afro-Peruvian cuisine in a restaurant called Lorena which consisted of chicharonne (fried fatty pork), sweet potato, salsa criolla and spicy huacatey sauce. Individually the elements of the dish were ok at best but all together with the spicy aromatic sauce and onions it was sublime. We knocked back a room temperature papaya juice which Mel explained is good for the liver (we needed all the help we could get on that front.)

We arrived at the desert-located distillery where Mel uses the giant gravity presses to make her La Diablada single varieties and acholados. Krug is the only other winery in the world to use this gravity press method as it produces very low yields of grape juice compared to machine or feet presses. Needless to say it produces exquisitely complex must which translates into the unique taste of the Diablada range of pisco. Out the back of the distillery was a cock fighting ring and the prize cocks in large cages. A ‘cock-o-seum’ if you will.

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There was a very picturesque house by the distillery where Mel led us through a tasting of single varieties of each of the eight grapes used in pisco production along with acholados (blends of different grapes) and mosto verdes (when fermentation is halted early to keep residual sugar during distillation). We discovered the different personalities and characters of the different grapes - four aromatics and four non aromatic - from the metro-sexual Torontel grape to the funky floral Italia, musky Mollar and the macho-man Quebranta. We tried a mosto-verde Mollar that smelled just like fresh oysters and sea shells. The tasting culminated in Melanie’s exquisite mosto verde of Italia – Nusta (meaning princess in Quechuan). Without a doubt the most delicious white spirit I’ve ever tried and almost unbelievable that it hasn’t had any dilution or sugar added. All pisco has to be aged at least three months in non-reactive containers and no water, sugar or additives can be added to be able to be called pisco but the Nusta is aged for two years Mel explained and she adds sun-dried almost raisin-like Italia grapes to the gravity-pressed Italia must (fermented grape juice) to get the sugar levels up.

After learning as much about pisco production as possible for one day we got back in Juan Carlo’s natural gas fuelled car to Paracas. We arrived at the 5-star luxury resort that is Hotel Paracas and after checking our bags in the nicest smelling lobby anyone has ever been in we headed out back to the beachside sun loungers and ordered our first ceviche of the trip along with some slightly sweet but still tasty Chilcanos. We silently enjoyed a mixto ceviche featuring octopus, langoustine, squid, sea bass, giant choclo corn, fried cancha corn, sweet potato and tongue tantalising leche de tigre which is the name given to the seasoned key lime juice that the fish ‘cooks’ inside. We also ordered causa (cold mashed potato seasoned with lime and Peruvian yellow chilli) topped with langoustine, avocado, sweet potato and a vivid purple corn sauce. There was an amusing little bird that kept stealing the cancha from our plates.

Once full of some of the freshest fish any of us ever had, we retired to our villa to change into our swim suits. We swam about one length before getting in the hot tub to enjoy some pisco-less Pina Coladas. Once the sun went down and the wind picked up it was time to change for dinner at the hotel where we had some Peruvian classics such as Arroz con Pato (duck breast, green herbed rice & salsa criolla), Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef with tomato, onions, soy and served with fries) and Aji de Gallina (chicken stew with yellow chilli, condensed milk & olives). The starter was a banging sea-bass Tiradito (sashimi style slices of fish) with a light rocoto chilli sauce. Feeling properly fat we took a walk to the end of the pier to look out at the sea and stars and say hello to a rather guilty looking pelican followed by a quick Nusta before bed.

Day 3: Penguin Guano Island – Macchu Distillation Party – Coca Leaf Confidence

Waking up and forgetting where you are is a strange feeling but when in hotel Paracas it's pretty damn awesome. We headed out on a speed boat with 16 strangers to the Islas Ballestas (poor man’s Galapagos). The guidebook warned of choppy waters and it was particularly mountainous that day. More than one gringo succumbed to the oceans rocking tempo and heaved over the sides. We stopped briefly at the massive and mysterious sand drawing of a candelaria or cactus. No one really knows how the massive picture got there but beliefs range from pirates to aliens to the Nazca civilisation. We then raced/rocked the 17 minutes to the Islas where we were greeted by Humboldt penguins, pelicans, Peruvian boobies (hush now), barking and sun-basking sea lions, seal pups and millions of tiny bright red shrimp near the sea surface which sea-birds dive-bombed into. Apparently in November humpbacks, orcas, sperm whales and blue whales can be seen (!?). Every 8-10 years people go and collect 45-60cms of guano (bird-doo-doo) to be sold as fertilizer across the world… yummy. Needless to say the smell was intense. Mike and Mel didn’t fare to well on the trip and retreated into their coats to hide out on the ride back.

Once back on dry safe land Mel and I raced to the pool for a last minute swim and Bloody Mary before going further into the desert away from the sea to Ica. We checked into our next hotel – the Las Dunas resort which was pretty much a gated village with swimming pools akimbo, sand dunes, golf, karaoke bars, water slides, llamas just walking about spitting on guests (just like Holiday Inns back home…) and Vance swore he saw a sheep. My travelling chef buddy Mike wasn’t very well unfortunately and we all agreed it was best for him to rest in the room while the rest of us went to the Macchu Pisco distillery in the village of Santiago on the outskirts of Ica city.

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It was the end of distillation so Mel was throwing a party for the hard-working distillery team. While the BBQ was being fired up we tried some of the pisco straight off the still or within the 3 month resting period. This is known as chicharonne as it's quite smoky and we noted that they all shared a very nutty finish almost like toasted almonds. We also (rather confusingly) made a small batch of actual chicharonne pisco consisting of quebranta grape must, 10kg of pork ribs and 6kg of fruit including pineapple (Hawaiian pizza pisco?), pomegranate, grenadilla, papaya and mango. This began doing its thing while we went outside to enjoy the BBQ and musicians that rocked up to play local music.

We had infused Pisco Chilcanos to get the party started. These included herba luisa (lemon grass), ginger root (…ginger root) and coca leaf (you heard). I don’t know if it was the coca leaf pisco but I felt a sudden urge to pick up the guitar and start playing so I waited until the musicians had a break and asked (someone else to translate) if I could play. I ended up jamming some bossa nova, blues and jazz and no one really listened until I managed to drop the guitar on the concrete floor. The amplifier on full reverb made the it sound like a huge explosion - the guitar was fine but I stopped playing none the less.

Before we left the distillery the heads started coming out of the still and we dabbed this carefully on our tongues (there are high levels of methanol in the first part of every distillation that are best avoided unless you want to go blind). The ‘heads’ contains the highest amount of esters (flavour compounds) and it really tasted like distilled Pisco Punch – heavy on the pineapple and incredible.

Vance and I huddled under one of the stills to keep warm in the cool desert temperature and enjoyed some of distillery manager Eduardo’s Mistella or ‘Perfect Amor’ which is essentially fortified wine using Pisco grapes. We were joined by silver fox/Ace Ventura’s dad lookalike Carlitos (real name Carlos but apparently has never grown up) who used to fly tourists over the Nazca lines. He knew all about our itinerary which included a sand buggy tour of the sand dunes. I asked him about this as I had read that the drive over the dunes can be like a roller coaster and he said our driver would know exactly what and where he was going but we wouldn’t have a clue…. great. We then went back to the resort for a quick Pisco sour before snoozeville.

Day 4: Huacachina – Pisco Pussy – Mud Bath - Giant Snails

A very rested Mike and I woke early to explore our resort. There was a huge sand dune at the back of the resort that we climbed up to discover amazing views of the Ica desert and on the way down again we ran into Vance’s mythical sheep. Juan Carlos picked us up at 9am and we drove the 15 minutes to Huacachina – a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees and gigantic white sand dunes, affectionately known by back-packers as Huaca-f**king-china. I felt my anxiety rising as we sighted the bloody massive dunes surrounding the lagoon. I’ve never been a fan of roller coasters much (at all...) and so the prospect of flying through the dunes on a buggy was not particularly favourable. It turned out it was around 400 times scarier than I expected but I was more afraid of missing out on anything so I grabbed hold of my cojones and gingerly climbed on the beastly 4x4 buggy.

Mel lost her hat within the first 30 seconds and the rest is a blur of high-frequency swearing, holding onto Mel for dear life, wanting to throttle the driver, having the best time of my life and 70-100mph vertical climbs and dives through the dunes until we stopped and off loaded the boards for some sand-boarding. Mike, Vance and Mel had no problems during the drive and seemed to be in their element. I graciously accepted the new title of pisco pussy.

Sand boarding was a blast though and we all had a go at standing or on our fronts. A few sanded off elbows/butt-cheeks later and we were back on death row/buggy for a guano-inducing race back to the oasis. The last 100mph dash from the very tip of a particularly high dune was especially terrifying. No one could even breathe let alone swear and whatever tan I had built up was sanded off in the sand blast but somehow Mel spotted her tiny pink hat in the distance and signalled the driver to pick it up. Mel goes on these buggies at least once a year and said that this trip was hair-raising even for her.

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The rest of the day was far more relaxing and we drove at a reasonable pace back to the distillery near the foothills of the Andes to try our Chicharonne-Chicharonne Pisco after the full 8-hour distillation period. The taste was intense, slightly astringent but with pleasant pineapple notes and porky smokiness in the background. This will definitely need 3 months to rest! You’ll be able to find it at Chotto Matte now. Then Mel being Mel pulled out a surprise of a full body mud mask using the dead lees (dead yeast), grape skins and wine left over after distillation. We are told this stuff costs a fortune in spas in Bordeaux and we lather it on and let it dry out in the afternoon sun. When fully caked in dried rigid dead yeast mud we all jumped in the piscine to wash it all off. Feeling fantastic we had the left over pork from the still that resembled pulled pork, in sandwiches with salsa criolla.

After acting like five year olds and racing down water slides laughing like maniacs, we started the four hour drive back to Lima. We stopped off for a Lomo Saltado empanada (small filled light pastry) and then changed briefly before heading (late) to our reservation at Amaz (jungle cuisine). The bar at Amaz headed by ultimate dude Luis was unbelieveable. The range of ingredients from Quito Quito (tomato like with flavours of passionfruit and a foamy texture when shaken) to Amazonian bee honey (soft with notes of tree bark and cinnamon) and these crazy tiny oranges that looked like limes. We also tried fermented Yuca which tasted like pure umami in a michelada featuring mezcal, whisky, spices and beer.

Our late dinner consisted of giant wild Amazonian snails with tapioca, wild river shrimp causa, plantains, Paiche (amazon river fish) steak, a kind of peking duck cooked in a giant leaf and we finished off with a unique desert of pork ice cream with a dark beer glaze on pineapple granita and sea salt. We left feeling dis-orientated as none of us (except Mel) had tried these weird and wonderful ingredients into an uber back to Casa Inca. Leaving sleepy Mel at the hotel Vance, Mike and I decided to take a walk to see if we could find any last-night activities – we found a club called Gotika which we were hustled down the expensive gringo entrance paying a fortune to get in. Once inside we discovered that everyone looked about 16. After 2 Chilcanos we left and later discovered the clubbing age of Peru is indeed 16…

Day 5: Mike the Model – Nikkei Lunch – Emotional Dispatch

Our American brother Vance left us at 6.30am to travel on to Cusco to visit Machu Pichu but we’ll be visiting him in DC soon enough as we became close (probably due to all the near-death experiences we shared.) Mike was asked to model a Pisco Sour wearing a Macchu Pisco t-shirt – he agreed willingly but didn’t know it required hanging off the edge of a cliff!! The pisco helped calm him down and hopefully the photos will come out good!

We raced around a local market picking up gifts and 4000 key rings for Chotto Matte staff before heading back to Casa Inca to check out. Before our 5.30pm flight we had lunch at Maido – a Nikkei themed restaurant focusing on the Japanese influence dating back to the mid-1500s that helped shape Peruvian cuisine today. When we walked in there was a cheery cry of ‘Maidooo’ from the staff – this happened every time someone new walked in. Nice touch I thought.

The food was incredible from the famed short rib which is slow cooked for 50 hours in sake, soy and mirin, rock fish Tiradito with sesame, olive oil and roasted garlic and steamed buns stuffed with baby back ribs. The palate cleansing desert consisted of lemon icecream, nitro frozen tangerine, sweet potato wafers and chilli macaroons like a sweet version of a ceviche.

To say this trip was inspirational would be an understatement - Chotto Matte's new cocktail menu features elements from each place we visited and is available to try from June. Special thanks to Macchu Pisco as without this beautiful liquid, this trip would not have been possible. Melanie, Lizzie and Natasha have truly nailed Peruvian Pisco incorporating the vital essence of Peruvian culture. Piscologists unite!

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