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Peru: In search of the perfect Pisco

Peru: In search of the perfect Pisco
In Lunahuana village, chickens are soaked in Pisco before roasting. As the deep brown birds come out of the oven, their sizzling skin is given another misting of Pisco to give it an boozy warmth.
Journey down the Pan American Highway south from Lima and barren, desolate theme sets in. The landscape here is dusty, deserted and not naturally welcoming.
But venture inland, towards the massive peaks of the Andes, and the adobe houses are suddenly, colourfully adorned with a surprising garnish – thick, healthy-looking grape vines. Then there are broad fields of them, set out in those mesmerising parallel lines which span valleys. This is Peru's wine country – an oasis of verdant splendour in a rugged, rocky world.
The wineries along the Rio Canete produce some reds, but it's not their forte and it shows – they are sweet and lack the power of their Chilean and Argentinian cousins.
The main focus in this part of the world is Pisco, a grape brandy which has become a bit of a national sweetheart.
First introduced by the Spanish settlers in the 16th century as an alternative to imported brandy, Pisco is now one of the proudest elements in the Peruvian culinary armoury.
Sometimes it's sweet and mellow, but others are more similar to tequila or vodka and can get as fierce as 48%. Here in Peru, it's made from eight different types of grape – aromatic white grapes and non-aromatic red grapes.
In Lunahuana, a tiny village an hour or so from Canete, the method of making Pisco hasn't changed much. When the grapes need pressing, the locals come, armed with a few bottles of last year's vintage, and dance barefoot on the fruit. Once fermented, the liquid is distilled using ornate copper equipment and left to age in huge metal vessels – never in oak barrels.
The end product is surprisingly drinkable and flavours vary depending on the grape and the method of production. Mosto Verde is best imbibed neat – fermentation of this Pisco is cut short before distilling to make a sweet, softer drink. The Italiana is floral while the acholado blend has a taste of orange to it.
But the the Pisco Sour is where you'll most likely enjoy this spirit. Made up of Pisco, lemon juice, egg white, ice, sugar syrup and Angostura Bitters, it's blended up to a sharp, foamy cocktail. Most bars in Lima say they make the best Pisco Sour, but it's hard to encounter a really bad one.
Like most good spirits, Pisco has made its way into the kitchen. At Pisco Pollo in Lunahuana, chickens are soaked in the spirit for a few hours before being roasted. As the deep brown birds come out of the oven, their sizzling skin is given another misting of Pisco to give it an alcoholic heat. By the sea, it's whisked into a cream and pecan sauce for sea bass, while it is also dropped into hearty stews in the highlands.
The locals all have their own way of testing the quality of Pisco, but the popular method is to turn the bottle upside down and rotate it in a whisking action – if the clear liquid forms a long, thin whirlpool, you're on to a good tipple.
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3 February 2012
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