I randomly met Romina Puente-Arnao at a famed fried yucca stand in Lima, Peru’s Mercado Palermo earlier this year while filming for the Travel Channel’s Street Eats International. I was excited to learn that she was helping launch her family’s pisco label in the United States this year. While most Peruvian piscos are far less mass produced than those in Chile, the brands that have made the trip north thus far are some of the largest labels and are no longer family owned and operated, which is a generally a defining characteristic of Peru’s, mostly small batch, piscos. The brand is called Pisco Capurro in the US and Nazca Pisco in Peru. It is one of the very few piscos coming from the Nazca desert. While Nazca Pisco has been around for decades in Peru, Capurro just launched in Miami this September and has plans to make its way up the East Coast later this year. It’s a much needed addition to the American Pisco market. Puente-Arnao was kind enough to give us a detailed story of Capurro:
New World Review: Though your family is from Peru, you grew up in San Francisco. How did you become so familiar with pisco?
Romina Puente-Arnao: I was born in Peru and lived there through the beginning of elementary school. My grandparents on my mother’s side had 11 children and 30 grandchildren, of which I am the third, and the first girl. As the first granddaughter, my grandfather and I were inseparable, spending time at the vineyard & family farms, eating breakfast together every morning, and hanging around as he would bring out a bottle of his pisco to make Chilcanos before lunch. Once he started walking towards his cellar, he was on a mission to whip up cocktails for the 15 or so people that we had lunch with everyday at the hacienda.
When I moved to the states, I missed my grandfather the most. Part of the drive I have always had to learn more about pisco was to feel closer to my grandfather, continuing to develop our relationship despite the fact that we lived thousands of miles apart. When I was younger, the internet didn’t really have much information about pisco; so every time my grandparents came to visit they would bring me books, brochures, old poster ads, anything and everything having to do with pisco and with the family’s brand. I also spent a lot of time researching wine trying to understand the parallels between pisco and wine.
NWR: How did you get the idea to bring your family’s pisco to the United States?
RPA: Since I was a young child, I always heard about how amazing my grandfather’s pisco was. When he visited San Francisco, he would bring a suitcase full of bottles that my mother only pulled out for special occasions. I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t go buy it at the supermarket when she ran out. Then I would hear my grandfather saying how the “gringos” would love his pisco and he wished he could bring it to the US. One day, I said to him, ‘grandpa I will bring your pisco to the US.’
Years later, while at the University of Southern California, I decided to look more seriously into the possibility as part of my business degree curriculum. After college, my goal was to gain experience enabling me to make my family’s dream a reality. I worked for an import/export company, started my own small food company, and worked for one of the nation’s largest Alcoholic Beverage distributors as a sales rep in some of the highest volume areas in the country. In 2010, I left my job at the distributor and began to pursue the idea full-time, bringing on a partner, PJ Scheufele, in early 2011. Two years and a lifetime of dreams later, we launched Capurro Premium Pisco this month in Miami.
NWR: Capurro has private estate grapes. What does that mean?
RPA: This speaks to the quality of our product and helps differentiate us on just one more level from other piscos currently being offered in the United States. Most other brands in the US purchase grapes from different vineyards throughout the valley. We strictly use grapes from our family vineyard. This is why terroir is very important to us, just like in wine. It is important to note that pisco is wine that is distilled. Many people think it is similar to grappa, but grappa uses the pomace – the skins, seeds, and pulp leftover after wine production. For pisco production, we make wine and throw away the pomace. Therefore, just like wine, terroir is important to our unique flavor and quality.
The terroir in Nazca is a unique combination of all the natural factors; the soil, the climate, the strength of the sun. The terroir influences the character of our grapes making our product completely unique, there is no other pisco from Nazca in the international market. A lot of the best piscos come from the Ica Valley, particularly the town of Ica, which is 2 hours north of Nazca. In Nazca it is hotter than Ica and the days are slightly longer. This makes for sweeter, riper fruit, which results in an amazing pisco. Great pisco can only come from great grapes.
NWR: You mentioned that in making Capurro the head and tail is removed, making it smoother. What exactly does this mean and do other pisco distillers do that?
RPA: To make pisco, first you make a young wine. Unlike Grappa, which uses the leftovers after winemaking, pisco producers actually make wine as the first step, discarding the stems, seeds, skins, etc. We then distill the young wine using a copper pot still. Basically, we put heat under a pot of wine, the wine turns into steam, rises, then falls through a “serpentine,” essentially a pipe emerged in cold water. As the steam goes through the serpentine, it turns into liquid. The first liquid to come out is the “head,” and has a higher percentage of alcohol, the second part is the “heart” or “body,” the true essence of pisco which contains all the aroma and flavor, and the final part is the “tail,” and has a lower percentage of alcohol. As the liquid falls from the serpentine, we are both tasting for quality assurance and measuring the grade of alcohol. The head and tail contain impurities, taste bitter, and have lower quality taste and aroma compared to the heart.
Some pisco producers will include portions of the head and tail, to greater or lesser extent, in order to expand production, mixing the higher and lower percentage alcohols to blend with the heart of the distillate. This is still pisco, it is just generally a lower quality. Pisco is distilled to proof, which means nothing can ever be added after distillation to increase or decrease the percentage of alcohol (unlike Vodka, which is distilled to 95% or 96% alcohol by volume then cut with water to achieve the final alcohol by volume). Our family’s focus is on producing the highest quality pisco possible, so we take great care to only bottle the heart of the distillate.
NWR: Your great grandparents came from Italy. Did they begin to grow grapes for wine first? How did they begin to distill pisco?
RPA: Andres Juan Giovanni Capurro was born in Italy in 1841 and immigrated to Lima, Peru, in 1875 with his wife, Maria Capurro. In 1882, they had a son named Juan Enrique Alejando Capurro, who went on to become Mayor of Surco, the largest district of Lima, holding the first ever harvest festival and pisco tasting competition in 1938, a festival which continues to be celebrated to this day. On the other side of my family, the Castros hail from Southern Lima, Peru, where they have had their hands in grape cultivation and the production of pisco since the late nineteenth century. Long the spirit of choice among Peruvians, Isidoro Martiniano Castro and his brothers learned the craft of pisco distillation from their father, who had learned from his father many years before. Isidoro’s brother, Juvenal Castro was an expert enologist and developed and commercialized his own wine brand. My grandfather, and our master distiller, was the result of the union between these families. His parents were Juan Enrique’s daughter, Maria Regina Capurro, and her husband, Isidoro Martiniano Castro. Both families instilled the knowledge and craft of pisco in my grandfather, who is continuing that lineage in me today.
NWR: You mentioned your grandmother tests the grapes before harvest, what does she do and how long has she been doing it?
RPA: Just like wine, the quality of grapes used in pisco production is extremely important and is a major difference between high and low quality pisco. It is important to take great care not just throughout the year, but also in determining when to pick the grapes. As we approach harvest season, we begin testing the grapes to determine when they are ready to be picked. We use a BRIX Meter, or refractometer, which essentially measures the sugar levels of the grapes, to help decide our timing. My grandmother refuses to trust a machine and instead walks through the vineyard tasting random grapes. Her palate decides. She has been doing this for over 50 years, and even with all the technological advancements, she is still the best judge.
NWR: How many members of your family are involved in the pisco making process? What do they do?
RPA: My uncle manages our vineyard, my grandfather is the master distiller, and I am leading our international expansion. We work together in determining the time of harvest, along with my grandmother, the blending, and all steps of production. Luckily we have a very large family, so many of my cousins, aunts, and uncles help with anything we might need, including, of course, taste testing.
NWR: Peruvian pisco is in high demand now and many distillers are trying to mass-produce pisco. You are against that. Why? How can you increase production without sacrificing the artisanal spirit of the product?
RPA: I am not against producing a high volume of pisco, but for our product specifically, I am against the methods typically used in mass production. We aren’t in the business of taking over the world, we simply want to share what our family drinks – a true pisco free from compromise. We all have very picky palates, so we wouldn’t drink something that is an uncomfortable experience or tastes bitter or harsh. When piscos are mass-produced, much like many other products, the quality typically suffers. There are many ways to expand production yield from the same amount of grapes (like adding head and tail during distillation), but with each decision to do so comes a sacrifice in quality. Production can only properly be increased by a proportionate increase in grapes. We refuse to change our production process and our generations old family recipe in order to increase volume.
NWR: Since winning the Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Awards in 2008, the name of your pisco and bottle changed. Why?
RPA: My family had always said my grandfather’s pisco was the best in the world, but winning the Double Gold Medal was a great validation for me, really driving my determination to bring it to the US market. The bottle my grandfather was using at the time was a typical Peruvian pisco bottle and was a little dated. For the international market, we believed the bottle needed to more accurately reflect the quality of the product inside. During this process, we also decided it was important to pay homage to our family heritage with the branding.
My grandfather’s grandfather, Juan Enrique Capurro, was the mayor of Surco, the largest district of Lima, and held the first ever harvest festival and pisco tasting competition in 1938. My grandfather, Eduardo Castro Capurro, is our master distiller. My grandfather has used his surnames of Castro & Capurro to commercialize his piscos for years. We therefore chose to go to market with the family name “Capurro,” instead of the Nasca Pisco name, which refers to the city where our vineyard resides. Every part of the bottle pays homage to our family heritage and the rich culture of Peru.
NWR: What is your favorite way to drink Capurro?
RPA: When we are in Nazca, we drink a Chilcano every day before lunch to open our appetites. The Pisco Sour is the most well-known pisco cocktail in the United States, but the Chilcano is actually the most popular drink in Peru. It is very easy to make, easy to find the ingredients, and, most of all, it is refreshing & delicious.
2 oz. Capurro Premium Pisco
4 oz. of Canada Dry Ginger Ale
1 slice of lime
Add Capurro Premium Pisco to glass, squeeze fresh lime juice, stir, add ginger ale, stir, add ice, stir and serve.
This is exactly how my grandfather has made the Chilcano for decades, down to the order in which you place the ingredients in the glass. You can add a little more ginger ale or pisco at the end if you want it stronger/lighter. You could also make a similar drink, the Piscola, by substituting cola for ginger ale. Of course there are more elaborate cocktails that you can check out on our website but this is the most user friendly.
NWR: What hurdles do you have in introducing a new brand of pisco in to the U.S. market?
RPA: The US market is so big that it is easy to think you have to take it all on at once. We are focusing on targeting only a few select regional markets in our first year, staring with Miami and South Florida. It is very important to me that as we enter a new market, I meet the people working with our Pisco to discuss what differentiates Capurro from other products they may have tried in the past. Also education is key for a product like pisco as it is still an emerging category.
Going up against the behemoth suppliers, brands, and distributors in the spirits industry is a challenge, but one we are enjoying. We chose a smaller artisan wine & spirits distributor because of their focus on quality and education. We are getting great response from mixology forward bars and restaurants and people who really care about the quality of spirits they are serving. We know if we can get a beverage director to taste our product, they will have a very hard time saying no – our product speaks for itself.
For more information about Pisco Capurro, visit Piscocapurro.com.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.