Peru reaches new heights with spirits

23 February, 2023

The South American country has been making waves with its cuisine in recent years. and now drinks producers are getting in on the act, says Sorrel Moseley-Williams.

Without a doubt, Peru has been South America’s leading gastronomic force for the past 15 years. A slew of establishments and their culinary leaders dominate global lists such as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the teams behind Central, Maido, Kjolle and Mayta are currently driving the biodiverse country forward by plating Peru’s enormous pantry of raw materials.

Peru, of course, has long produced pisco. Harnessing 400 years’ experience distilling fermented grape juices, Peru’s spirits reputation in the winemaking regions south of capital city Lima is already clear. But, a new wave of distillers looking to bottle – rather than chefs aiming to cook – Peru’s identity with known spirit concepts, have cast their net wide. Whisky, gin, vodka and even agave-based spirits are bursting with heritage, embracing the diverse landscape and its flavours. Diego Macedo, co-owner of Sastrería Martínez bar in Lima, says the movement to create Peruvian liquors is booming.

“Given that the market is saturated by pisco, which has advanced thanks to high-quality production, international markets have opened up,” he says. “That in turn has opened the doors for new projects such as 14 Inkas vodka, which is one of the first craft distillers to use Peruvian raw materials, distilling Andean potatoes.

“Others then realised the versatility of Peru’s pantry. For example, the team behind Aqará agave spirit, which has picked up several prizes for its Peruvian ‘tequila’, as has Black Whiskey, a Peruvian-style bourbon whose base grain is purple Andean corn.”

The variety of new liquors with great stories also creates opportunities when it comes to cocktail making, says Luis Flores, head bartender at Lima’s Ribeyro bar. “I’ve always loved using these spirits because of the difference in flavours they bring. There are gins, for example, that use Amazonian botanicals such as bark, roots, cacao mucilage, tonka beans and little-used citrus fruit, sub-products that have long interested me,” he says.

Far from corny

While the Andes’ star ingredient has long been the humble potato, with more than 6,000 varieties recorded by Peru’s INIA agricultural institute, a rainbow array of corn has gained momentum. Some 52 varieties are cultivated in Peru’s highlands, dazzling blue, pink and purpley-black kernelled jewels that make the standard yellow cob seem, frankly, dull. In January, the country’s Inacal national quality institute approved requirements for whiskey andino (Andean whiskey), proving liquid heirloom Andean corn is set to take the spotlight.

The road has been burdened with patience and red tape, says Michael Kuryla, founder of Don Michael distillery based in Lurín, an hour’s drive south of Lima. The flagship brand of the distiller, who wrote and presented the norm’s rules, is Black Whiskey, although Kuryla also makes a Single Barrel edition as well as Andean gin and the Baileys-esque Andean Cream.

“Five years ago, we registered our brands in Peru and the US, which wasn’t that easy because of Black Label. But as soon as I sent photos of the black corn we were using, they understood,” says Kuryla.

The next step was getting these rules in front of Indecopi, Peru’s competition and intellectual property protection regulator. “They approved that about a year ago, then about three weeks ago [17 January 2023], it was published in the El Peruano official state gazette. It was unexpected – but very awesome,” he adds.

While the requirements are similar to bourbon’s in terms of alcohol by volume and ageing in new oak barrels, the difference lies in the mash bill. Andean whiskey must use at least 51% of corn and six grains that must have been cultivated in the Andes: approved grains include quinoa and love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) among others. And it’s the purple or black corn husks known as maíz morado INIA 601 cultivated in Peru’s northern Cajamarca highlands that give whiskey andino its intense dark amber hues and unusually bold flavours.

Beating bureaucracy is a detail, however, given that international spirits competitions have been garlanding Don Michael Black Whiskey. The most recent was Don Michael Black Whiskey Single Barrel taking the Best in Show Whiskey prize in the New York World Spirits Competition 2022, also picking up the Best of Class award for Best Other Whiskey.

Of the Single Barrel winner, the distillery’s master taster Daiana Milon, who hand-selects each barrel, gives the following tasting notes: “Spicy and sweet on the palate, it has tropical fruit notes and a vanilla caramel finish. Complexity is realised beyond the midpalate as a combination of clove and dark roasted coffee come out to play. A pronounced creaminess to the mouthfeel ensures these finishing notes are drawn out slowly.”

An Andean agave first

Black Whiskey isn’t the only Peruvian spirit to pick up gongs. Marco Suárez, the self-taught distiller behind Aqará, has received his fair share for the Andean agave spirit he distils in his home town of Caraz (the name comes from the Quechua indigenous language Qaras, meaning Agave Place). The 33 accolades are helping him to make the tiniest of dents in Mexico’s market, which produces an eye-watering around 450 million litres of agave-based spirits a year. In 2019, Suárez sold all 25,000 Plateado and Reposado bottles, making it the first non-Mexican agave product to be imported into the US. He calls it one of Peru’s most Peruvian raw materials.

“Agave – albeit under different names and none of them was agave – was used during the pre-Inca and Inca civilisations. In fact [the writer] Inca Garcilaso de la Vega wrote a chapter called The Maguey Tree and Its Benefits in his book Comentarios Reales, which was published in 1609, six years before pisco’s ‘official’ creation in 1615. You don’t get much more Peruvian than that…”

Inspired by the rocky landscape he was brought up in, the Ancash highlands covered with the native Cordillerensis variety at 2,250m above sea level, Suárez swotted up online before jacking in the corporate life to create his Peruvian answer to tequila.

“Although I’ve been surrounded by agave my whole life, when I became aware that mezcal used lots of varieties, I decided to distil Cordillerensis, which is 100% Peruvian. Because, just as our gastronomy is highly appreciated, I asked myself: ‘Why can’t we create Peruvian spirits that are worthy of our food?’”

While Suárez exports to the US and Japan, there are still hurdles to overcome. He says: “The international market is huge, and a craft distiller’s biggest challenge is getting noticed in the middle of all the noise made by the big and emerging brands.”

Given that Aqará is set to export to Québec from March, it appears this agave aficionado is breaking though the sound barrier.

Peruvian flair

Other notable raw materials include quinoa, coca leaves and Andean herbs, exotic flavours that respectively give Peruvian character to vodka, gin and vermouth. While Shirley Tourgee chose to make vodka as it’s her husband’s preferred spirit, by distilling it with quinoa, she created Quri, the first Andean vodka that has been warmly welcomed by the US market.

She says: “A crop from the amaranth family that was used by our ancestors, this superfood is considered the gold of the Andes. It’s valued as much today as it was by the Incas, and that’s what we share with our clients: not only is it a distillate, it’s also an experience that takes you back to our ancestral customs.”

The duo behind Avelino vermouth not only draw from the Andes for inspiration, they also source 28 botanicals, such as vanilla from the rainforest and wormwood from the central highlands. Given that the Peruvian palate is evolving, Avelino’s creators, Aldo Silva and Carlos Muro, are finding local consumers to be captive ones for their fortified wine.

Launching two years ago, Silva says: “While rum, whisky and pisco reign supreme, the doors have opened to ‘new’ beverages such as gin, mezcal and vermouth as well as aperitivos. Trends such as Aperol Spritz have helped the local palate adapt to bitter drinks and, given Peruvians’ love for sugar – and Avelino’s 19% – our vermouth has received a positive response.”

Feedback is also conclusive in Europe: the team is already exporting the Quebranta and Italia-based sweet vermouth to thirsty Spain, Germany and Italy.

Also gaining traction abroad is Alexander James’ London to Lima gin family, which has exported to Australia, Taiwan, Germany, the UK and Dubai. Given, he says, that the oldest-known gin recipe was made with grapes, he liked the idea of history repeating itself, and made his own alcohol from pisco’s Quebranta variety, and enjoys playing around with styles.

“The Mulberry & Coca gin is my take on a sloe gin. Mulberries have a lot of history in Peru, the flavour is amazing and adding coca enhances their flavour,” he says. Other Peruvian gins to look out for include Entidades, Gin’ca and Amazonian.

From bourbon to vodka and gin, Peru’s new wave of spirits is booming, and there’s plenty to choose from when it comes to mixing identity. Macedo at Sastrería Martínez says: “All these different flavour profiles give the local cocktail scene an extra boost, amalgamating different profiles without having to look to other countries for inspiration.”

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