Into the Mystic: Discovering Pisco’s Spiritual Roots

Alia Akkam journeys to Peru to discover the soul of the country's native grape-based spirit and, after meeting a shifty, fleece-donning shaman, comes back with a new understanding of her own fate.

pisco shaman

The shaman prompts me to ask a question. Tired and dehydrated, a hackneyed, “Will my career be marked by success?” reflects my exhaustion.

“It is good. Keep doing what you are doing and it will continue to be good,” the front desk clerk serving as translator relays with a smile.

The reason I am in Cusco, Peru, sitting cross-legged on hotel patio flooded with Machu Picchu backpackers and asking a man with purported magical powers about my fate is because of pisco.

From my first sip of Peru’s native grape-based spirit, underneath a pristine pisco sour’s snowy blanket of egg white, I was besotted. Here, in a country where pisco pervades, I have come to investigate the differences between aromatic and non-aromatic pisco puro (in the former, the single grape varietal will be either albilla, Italia, moscatel or torontel; in the latter, mostly quebranta, but sometimes mollar, negra or criolla), velvety mosto verde (a sipping pisco in which the fermentation process is halted for the distillation of grape juice still containing sugar); and acholado (a blend of any of the two grapes).

I want to wrap myself in a lush baby alpaca scarf. I want to hear the pan flute that irritates when I’m standing on a subway platform in New York, but calms when South America is my backdrop. I want to gaze at the proliferation of pisco bottles on the backbars of swank Lima restaurants and taste them all beside locals who don’t speak English, one pisco sour at a time. This will all happen. But more importantly, I will return home understanding the everyday links between pisco and Peruvians. In the heart of Catholic country, pisco’s spiritual roots run deep, and I am fascinated by how that history continues to inspire omnipresent rituals in the modern world.

A woman who offers me insight is Melanie Asher, the entrepreneurial Peruvian behind the brand Macchu Pisco. She moved to the U.S. when she was 10, and although she and her sister Lizzie—who runs the company with her—were ensconced in U.S. culture, she always felt like she had one foot firmly planted in Peru. Their mother, eager to keep the native ties strong, sent them back to South America on extended school breaks. Memories of their grandmother’s blessings and chants before putting them to bed led to the sisters asking their mother to light candles for them prior to college exams. While at Harvard Business School, Asher’s plan to create a pisco company took shape. She saw the success of tequila in the U.S., and just like the agave spirit holds a mirror to Mexican culture, she hoped to do the same for Peru—which meant illuminating its spiritual side.

When I meet him, I expect a Peruvian Wizard of Oz in showy attire: performance-ready white make-up, heavy gold earrings, a feather headdress. The little fleece-donning man sitting on a blanket with dark, shifty eyes most certainly can’t be the shaman, I think. Yet he is, surrounded by the brittle coca leaves packed with healing powers that are integral to his reading. In Lima, the coca leaf-infused sour, earthy and sage-hued, is one of the most popular ways to drink pisco. Maybe all those who drink it are looking for a bit of salvation, too.

It’s an especially apt time for me to visit Peru, as it’s the 400th anniversary of the first historical evidence of pisco production in the country. Asher is keen for this milestone, because she considers her limited edition La Diablada a reflection of a past synonymous with the mystical. She remembers her grandmother dusting the house with hierba buena to help summon financial success. She remembers being told of the power of karma and the importance of living in balance with nature. And she remembers her first trip to Cusco, with Lizzie, making an offering to Pacha Mama—Mother Nature. To this day she continues to do so, extending pisco in gratitude of the surrounding bounty. It will, she believes, connect her to apus, the mountain gods—and conjure an exquisite grape harvest for the next round of La Diablada.

Not surprisingly then, she is the one who tells me a session with a shaman is crucial to understanding the transcendent origins of La Diablada. When I meet him, I expect a Peruvian Wizard of Oz in showy attire: performance-ready white make-up, heavy gold earrings, a feather headdress. The little fleece-donning man sitting on a blanket with dark, shifty eyes most certainly can’t be the shaman, I think. Yet he is, surrounded by the brittle coca leaves packed with healing powers that are integral to his reading. In Lima, the coca leaf-infused sour, earthy and sage-hued, is one of the most popular ways to drink pisco. Maybe all those who drink it are looking for a bit of salvation, too.

“Another question, please,” says the translator.

I would just like to nap, but after an especially dark few months back in the States, I acquiesce with something philosophical, something heavy: “Will I ever be happy?”

I am not a person who smiles at strangers. I’d like to know if I ever will become one.

He rocks and holds the coca leaves to his lips, before he tells me that I will. However, the front desk boy says, perhaps a little too eagerly, “You know what you need to do.”

I walk away perplexed by his cryptic proclamation. Finally lose 10 pounds? Claim the Parisian balcony I declared, in my high school yearbook, would one day be my own? Apologize, yet again, to the person who every day I wish was still my friend? But then I see the powdered sugar coats of alfajores glimmering in the window of a bakery, and I walk inside, the shaman’s bottomless coal eyes forgotten.

Booze brands barrage this industry with empty narratives. Secret recipes and fashion designer-inspired bottles are all well and good to move cases among the status-conscious masses, but it does not impress me. Colorful marketing filler often bandies around the word authenticity. For some, a pastoral drawing on the label is enough to convince, for others a spirit’s 120-year heritage is what inspires. When I take a sip, I want to feel as if I am slowly slithering into its culture, inheriting its history and distinct set of mores.

For example, when I learn that at the Nikka Whisky distilleries in Japan—Yoichi in Hokkaido and Miyagikyo in Honshu—ropes of rice straw are strung around the stills to bless the spirit and keep the people who work in the distilleries safe, I am touched. This blessing is done not to gain Twitter followers, but to honor a centuries-old custom among sake brewers. Nikka’s founder, Masataka Taketsuru, comes from a long line of them, and so he wove it into his own repertoire when he started making whisky in the 1930s.

Asher abides by her own rituals. Every harvest full moon she invites a shaman to visit the bodega where she procures her grapes, south of Lima, for a blessing that might include a mélange of aromatic herbs, incense, cotton, sweets, gold and red raisins, chickpeas, rice and lentils to thank Pacha Mama. In Lima one night, I have dinner at La Asociación Cultural Brisas del Titicaca, where I am treated to vibrant, traditional folklore dancing. Asher’s La Diablada is named after an Andean dance in which angels and demons duke it out in the name of harmony, and I know this is the real Peru. Perhaps it’s even authentic.

A few days later I fly home with conjunctivitis and a cough. I do not leave my sofa for a week, laden with a 103-degree fever that makes me delirious, severe infections marring both my ears and a digestive system that no longer lets me eat. There is talk I will be hospitalized. It is only afterwards, when the meds start working, I contemplate that perhaps my illness is part of the shaman’s wise master plan. Up until then I have ignored what the universe has tried to tell me. With restored lucidity, I am finally ready to hear. You know what you need to do. Yes, I do. I will quit the job that leaves me yearning for more, and I will write the book everyone tells me they are surprised I have not yet written. And never again will I be able to drink a pisco sour without conjuring the sound of a crackling coca leaf. 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

Alia Akkam is a New York-based food, drink and culture writer and the editor of Edible Queens. Her work has appeared in Paper, Hemispheres, First We Feast and the Paris Review Daily, among others.

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