‘Wait, he wants us to drink more?’ the harshly beautiful American girl standing next to me gives me a look of horror that utilises all her facial muscles. I look at the ancient Peruvian brewer who is, sure enough, re-dipping his magical pisco stick into the ceramic container.
‘I think so,’ I say, trying to swallow the sickly burn that’s still merrily dissolving my oesophagus from the last shot.
A shaft of light cuts through the dimness of the large shed. I suppose it’s technically a warehouse, but really it’s a rickety wooden outbuilding filled with not only thousands of litres of pisco, but badly taxidermied animals, inexplicable suits of armour and a frankly weird amount of skulls.
There’s also at least a hundred years’ worth of dust in here. The roof is a half-hearted thing, hence the shafts of sunlight elbowing their way through the dense air. All this would be destroyed in one rainfall but luckily (depending on how you look at it) it never rains here. Ever.
Peru’s pisco is something of a national obsession and Ica, on the Atacama Desert’s northern extreme, is the place to get to grips with it. Considering I went on a dune buggy death ride the day before and thought wine tasting looked like a reasonable option to recover, today has so far been even more of an assault on the senses.
‘This one is pure pisco,’ translates a Peruvian girl for my American neighbour and me. The brewer is speaking seriously in Spanish and the group are listening intently.
‘You mean the last one wasn’t pure?’ asks the American girl, ‘why did it burn so much?’ Our impromptu translator is nodding gently at whatever the man is saying before turning to us again.
‘He says you must hold your breath while you drink it,’ she pauses to listen. ‘He says you must take the smallest taste first and then when you drink the rest, it will not be so shocking.’ She smiles as though what she’s saying is completely normal.
The American girl looks at me and opens her mouth to say something that she can’t quite articulate. Her eyes say run.
The miniature plastic shot glasses of pisco get passed around and work their way back to us. I hold in my hand hundreds of years of distilled tradition – or, more to the point, a spirit that contains around 45% alcohol. And it’s only just gone midday.
An acquired taste
The first tiny sip, just a drop, immediately fills my mouth with a treacherous and pervasive taste that is so strong it’s all I can do not to spit it out. Fumes travel up my nose and claw their way through my sinuses until they may as well be tapping on my frontal lobe. The American girl watches me.
I hold my breath, open my mouth and tip the rest of the shot into it. I hold it there, the lack of air seeming to genuinely numb my taste buds, before swallowing the whole mouthful and scrunching my eyes shut.
It’s not burning so much as shocking, sort of like being slapped in the throat. My eyes water ever so slightly and I consciously straighten out my face from the grimace that has inadvertently occurred.
‘How was it?’ asks the girl. I run my tongue around inside my mouth to try and get the saliva to shift the taste now embedded in my soft tissue.
‘It was a cultural experience,’ I tell her.