The Spirit of Peru is Pisco…and Much More

by Erlinda Alexandra Doherty  |  04.02.2022

Peru is one of the most bio-diverse countries on Earth, with every eco-system imaginable located within its 500,000 square miles. In the last decade or so, this South American country has garnered long-overdue recognition for its culinary prowess, which incorporates not only indigenous ingredients but also blends the traditions of European, African, and East Asian cultures.  

We know Peru is world-renowned for its cuisine—its restaurants consistently rank in the Top 50 Best Restaurants in the world. But what about its traditional beverages and spirits? From the Andes to the Amazon, there is so much rediscovery and innovation happening in this country. Let’s get an update on Peru’s established spirits, as well as a snapshot on some of its emerging distilled beverages.  

Pisco Is Peru…

As the national drink of Peru, Pisco is a white grape brandy that is an essential accompaniment to Peruvian cuisine.  The Spanish prohibition of Peruvian wine exportation forced winemakers to find alternative uses for their harvests and spurned what became a source of national pride. Today the United States is the second largest importer of Pisco, Peru’s world-renowned national brandy. Like Champagne or Cognac, Pisco has a Denomination of Origin which dictates where and how the brandy is to be made. Most of the Pisco is made in the Ica Valley, where the hot, dry climate is ideal for the cultivation of grapes with high sugar levels. 

Cocktails, such as the Pisco Sour, are usually made with “puros” derived from non-aromatic quebranta grapes, while “top-shelf” mosto verde, and “acholado” or blended Piscos are more suited for sipping. In recent years there has been a greater focus on resurrecting more artisanal practices for making the beverage, as well as on sustainability, as much of the exported Pisco to date has been of mediocre quality. There has also been an increase in producers in Peru’s more elevated regions, such as Arequipa, in an effort to make more restrained styles of Pisco and showcase distinct differences in terroir. To experience traditionally made, premium quality Pisco, try Intipalka’s Pisco Puro Acholado and Mosto Verde Torontel produced by the Queirolo family who has been crafting wine and pisco for 140 years.

…But So Is Vodka

In a land with 4000 different types of potatoes, how could there not be vodka? Well, until recently there wasn’t. Part of the recent activity in Peru’s spirits world has been a rediscovery of ancient traditional beverages or use of indigenous ingredients to create new products. 14 Inkas Vodka does the latter—using native potatoes from almost 10,000 ft in the Andes the brand has created Peru’s first vodka, a beverage that is distinctly Peruvian. The brand’s name refers to the 14 incas that ruled in Peru’s Andes and hearken back to times when these same Incas farmed the land. The potatoes for this vodka are cultivated today using the ancestral methods that were passed down from generation to generation. Ideal for sipping or for cocktails, 14 Inkas is smooth, full-bodied, with impressions of sweetness. 

…and Andean Agave

The agave plant has been part of the natural landscape of the Andes for thousands of years, but we commonly associate the plant with Mexico and its ubiquitous spirits, tequila and mezcal. At nearly 7,000 ft in the Andes Agave cordillerensis has flourished in severe climatic conditions, tolerant of poor and shallow soils while being fed glacier water of the Parón Lagoon. Upon rediscovering this native plant, Aqará created what they refer to as a “techno-artisan” process similar to tequila to cultivate, ferment, distill the agave into a beverage that is smooth and full-bodied. Also, like tequila, Aqará has crafted two styles—a plateado (silver) that is silky with floral aromas and flavors , and a reposado (rested) that is aged in American oak barrels and has more vanilla, butterscotch, and stone fruit aromas and flavors. Like it’s Mexican “cousin,” this agave spirit can be enjoyed neat or used in cocktails. Referring to the indigenous language spoken by the Incas and their descendants today, the label Aqará makes reference to “Qaaray” which means “land of the agaves.” 

Peru continues to be a dynamic country to watch for its contributions to the world of gastronomy and mixology. In a land of such abundance and diversity, no doubt a modern riff on another ancestral product or ingredient is just around the ancient ruins. ​