I wish everyone were as fanatical about pisco as is Lucero. We´d make a killing selling pisco. Funny thing is though, she actually never touched a drop of alcohol until she was 28! She tells me how she got into the pisco world, it was through her husband. When they were still young lovers getting to know each other, an activity she loved doing was cooking together. He´d come over and bring a bottle of wine, and that was her first encounter with the wonderful world of alcohol. Thing is though, she didn´t know anything about wines, so she decided to sign up for an oenology course. Soon enough, her palate began to distinguish subtleties, appreciate varieties... At the time, she was working in a Swiss financial institution and travelled a lot for work, mainly to Argentina and Chile, so she´d often extend her work trips to visit a vineyard here and there. That was the beginning of Lucero´s love story with pisco.
When she turned 40, she decided she could no longer ignore her growing passion for visiting distilleries. What if she could dedicate herself to that, full time, and actually make a living out of it? Pretty damn sweet. But wine was saturated. So she moved into pisco, for two reasons. First, the peruvian distillate was beginning to make a name for itself, both at home and on the international scene. Second, there were few "pisco experts" out there, meaning the position was up for grabs. Once she´d made the decision to pivot her life 180 degrees, there was no looking back. However, making a living in pisco wasn´t an easy task, especially since Lucero has always remained adamant she would never work for a specific distillery or pisco brand, which is the most logical way of making a good living when you´re a pisco expert.
Lucero´s pisco collection included more than 1,500 different piscos. This is just a small sample of the countless pisco bottles she has accumulated over the years.
I´ve always insisted on fiercely maintaining my independence from any distillery or pisco brand. I want to remain impartial and serve pisco first, by educating people in Peru and around the world on the magical distillate that is Pisco.
Once she´d decided she´d make a living out of pisco, she began binge visiting distilleries. Let me make a point clear. When I say binge visiting, I mean it: she has practically met all of the 500 or so pisco producers around Peru! Today, she spends her time giving conferences all around the world to propagate the peruvian flagship distillate. She has also written several books, and regularly teaches oenology classes at the University San Martin Porres in Lima. She´s, in a few words, what you could call a pisco nerd. Walking into her office was like walking in Alibaba´s cavern, except it´s filled with Pisco.
- How many different piscos do you have? I ask, dazzled.
- Over 1,500, she answers.
Damn... I´m there for a 4-day pisco bootcamp, in which we´re tasting over 100 different piscos in the space of 4 days, running over the history of the iconic Peruvian distillate, and learning the ins and outs of what it means to properly taste and evaluate a pisco.
Lucero Villagarcía is a renowned pisco sommelier who has written several books on the topic. I recommend beginning by reading "La Magia del Pisco".
How to taste a pisco
When evaluating a pisco, you basically look at 3 aspects: The visual aspect, the olfactive aspect, and the tasting aspect. Let´s proceed.
1. Visual Evaluation
Limpidity: How does the liquid look? Pisco should be 100% transparent, since it is not aged. It is pure grape distilled to proof. You therefore want the liquid to be as limpid as possible.
Color: It should be colorless.
2. Olfactive Evaluation
Tipicity: How resembling is the pisco to the attributes that characterize the grape variety? Ie, a Quebranta pisco should taste like a Quebranta, have notable banana and apple notes, etc.
Quality: It shouldn´t smell like plastic, rubber, or dirty cloth (characteristic of having too much tail during distillation). The smell should be balanced, and reflect the aromas contained in the grapes.
Intensity: It shouldn´t have the sensation of aggressiveness (too much alcohol) upon inhaling. The scent should be intense enough that you can smell it but should be characterized by the aromas present in the grape, not the smell of ethyl alcohol.
3. taste Evaluation
Typicity: Same aspect as the olfactive one, but this time directed towards the distillate´s taste.
Quality: It should taste good, reflecting the natural aromas contained in the grapes. It shouldn´t taste of plastic, or too alcoholic, for example.
Persistence: How long does it stay in mouth and how good is the taste? It shouldn´t be excessively bitter, or there shouldn´t be any acidity.
As you evaluate a pisco, you do so in a blind tasting, of course. It is custom to taste piscos of the same category together (for example, comparing Quebrantas with Quebrantas, etc.). The best way to evaluate a pisco is trust your nose, and confirm with the taste. That is, smell it first. If it smells good, confirm, or not, by tasting it. Last but not least, whether you´re tasting pisco for the first time or just having a pisco with friends, remember Lucero´s first rule about drinking pisco: El pisco se toma a besitos (Pisco is to be drunk in kisses), meaning, slowly, appreciating every sip of it, and letting the profusion of aromas explode in the mouth. Only then is the real magic of pisco revealed in all its splendor.
About to begin a pisco tasting session, Over the space of the 4-day course, we drank more than 100 different piscos!