We’re back in Peru today. Way back. Back into time…
Having looked at the “present” of Peruvian whisky with the industrially-produced Old Times blend, I’m now casting an eye toward both the past and the future with a look at Destilería Andina. Started a few years back by a trio of friends, the company is at the vanguard of craft distilling in Peru.
I became aware of Destilería Andina by sampling a few of their products at MIL, an offshoot of Lima’s famous Central restaurant. Emphasizing local produce, the fare combines ancient ingredients with contemporary cooking methods to produce an artistic tasting menu of eight courses. The pairings include beverages produced by Destilería Andina, which shares the focus on indigenous raw materials.
Located in Ollantaytambo in the Valle Sagrado (sacred valley), the distillery’s core product is cañazo, a distillation of freshly-squeezed sugar-cane juice. This is used as the base for compuestos, medicinal concoctions created by steeping local botanicals in the distillate. They’ve recently started distilling grain to produce the predecessor to a whisky.
To learn more, I reached out to co-founder and distiller Haresh Bhojwani, who took some time to speak with me. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity:
MALT: How did you personally get into distilling?
Haresh: I never studied, and I never grew up in it. It was a passion I developed as I got more and more into it. It’s tied very much to the company.
When we started the company, our idea initially was to make a compuesto. Compuestos are these Andean medicinal extractions, similar to Amaros in a way. Every family has its recipe. You usually use botanicals from your neighborhood.
The area of Peru we are in was very isolated until about 30 years ago. There were a lot of dirt roads, no regular communication with the outside world. Everyone was very poor, so you made your own natural medicines. The way you made those was by getting a botanical you knew was good for your health and putting it in your sugarcane spirit, which is essentially a Rhum Agricole. It’s not a rum in the classic English sense that it’s not fermented sugar; it’s the actual sugarcane juice that’s fermented.
That also is interesting since it was made in these areas that were not great for growing sugarcane. Since there was no real communication with the outside world in terms of commerce, they made a spirit because they needed a spirit.
You have these varieties of sugarcane that have been adapted to high altitude. We work with some that are growing up at 2,100 meters. That’s really high up for sugarcane. They’re growing in high plains desert, they’re being irrigated by glacier meltwater. The soil is very mineral, the water is very mineral, so you have these very interesting flavors in the cane.
But nobody was really thinking about all that stuff, they were just producing it because it was all they had. The locals were drinking it and using it for religious purposes like blessing of the land and connections with the spiritual world, and for making these medicinal mixes that were drunk both for pleasure and for health. We wanted to make our own versions, starting with the one that my friend’s mother made. What we found quickly was that the spirits we were getting were not really up to the standards we wanted. That’s what drove us to distill.
MALT: Can you describe your production process?
Haresh: We’re pretty small. We have two stills that are each about 70 gallons. When we’re working from fermented stuff, we do a lot of runs to get our low wines. That’s the setup we have right now. We’re planning to expand into a bigger facility, hopefully this year, but we’re trying to raise the money for that.
We do most of our fermentation offsite. For the sugarcane, we work with traditional growers that have been producing their own sugarcane distillations for a long time. We have spent a good amount of time with them, understanding their methods. We’ve picked a couple that we really like. They produce a consistent low wine for us and we buy usually 3,000 liters at a time. I go personally; they distill a batch for me, I check it, I bring it back myself in a truck and I then proceed to give it a second distillation with deep cuts.
Reposado spends about 6 months in casks. We blend in three Peruvian woods. There’s our joven, which we like a lot as well. We’ve found a lot of difference in flavor depending on what source of sugarcane you use. We’ve got two varieties, one we call azul and one we call verde. Azul comes from the high desert; blue skies, blue glacial waters. Verde comes from the cloud forest, the high Amazon, where it’s always green. Even the water is green. The blue is crisp, clean; between a vodka and a tequila in terms of flavor complexity. The green has a smokiness and is more herbaceous; it starts to get into the language of mezcal a little. They’re really different. We decided to keep them separate as a recognition of how different they are.
The main reason we originally started the distillery was because we liked to make our own compuesto. That is still our main objective. It took us a couple years to perfect a spirit we liked enough to do this. In the process we discovered we really like the spirit, so we started selling it as a young spirit.
Now we’re finally going to market with our compuesto, which is twelve different botanicals. We grow our own botanicals organically. We do a one month maturation in our low wine with all the botanicals. We treat the sugarcane as a twelfth botanical. They macerate in the low wine, which is usually around 80 to 84 proof, for a month. We throw that all in the still together, low wines and botanicals. We pull out of that a spirit that’s very botanical, at about 160 proof, 80% alcohol. That, we use to re-extract all the botanicals again in a much faster extraction. We pack as much botanical as will fit in a jar, pour the spirit in, and let it sit for about 10 days. We pull it out; the botanicals are completely bleached. We let that sit for a couple months, then we do a blend of all the botanicals together and hydrate it.
We’ve really developed something beautiful there. I don’t know how big it’s going to be because we’re just in Peru, it’s not like we’re a big deal. But I think we’ve achieved something really beautiful.
MALT: You mentioned cask-maturing the reposado. What is cask availability in Peru?
Haresh: It’s hard to get anything in Peru. The casks we buy internationally are actually Chilean wine casks that have been refinished; Cabernet casks that have had the tops and bottoms broken and have been scraped and re-burnt. I really don’t know how much wine there is in there. Our spirit does not taste like it; I cannot taste the wine cask in it. The cask bodies were French oak, the tops and bottoms when they re-made them were American oak. It’s a bit of a strange mix; 80% French oak, 20% American oak. It’s worked really well for us. We use Peruvian woods in addition to the casks.
MALT: In a region that produces grain – corn and quinoa – why was sugar cane distilled?
Haresh: A lot of Peruvian history has been lost. You had land reform about 40 years ago. Before that, every bit of land in the highlands belonged to hacendados, who were local kings in a sense. The hereditary bits of land were passed to the oldest son, since the Spanish empire. The people that owned the land owned the people on it and made all the economic decisions within that piece of land. They decided what was grown and how it was used. They controlled the distillation. They had patches of sugarcane to provide sugar to the local markets. They fermented the juice and distilled it.
All along, they had been making a corn beer in the Sacred Valley for about 7,000 years. It’s thought that one of the engines of the development of agriculture in Peru was this really fat-grained corn. They had been making a beer out of this corn called chicha de jora, and everyone drinks it. It’s what the Incas drank, what the cultures before the Incas drank. Archaeologists have found fermentation pots with the mash stuck to the side from a few thousand years ago. This stuff is ancient, and no one’s ever distilled it.
We started distilling that two years ago, working with our local brewery. We came up with the idea: in the low season, when they’re not really moving beer, why don’t they ferment a mash and we’ll distill it? 7,000 years of fermentation and one year of distillation! I don’t know why, but no one had thought of doing it.
We’ve got these small batches; in a week we’ll be releasing our 2018. We let it rest for a year before we sell it. It’s following a bourbon recipe; it’s a “white dog” in a sense. Over half is corn, the rest is malted barley. It comes out really nice. We want to start producing it at greater scale; there’s 230 bottles this year, one day we may produce that much a month. We want to wake people up to the idea of Andean whisky, with all this fermented corn.
MALT: What are you going to call it?
Haresh: With these small batches, we’ve been calling it a jora whisky mash, meaning it’s a distillation of a whisky mash as opposed to a whisky itself. If we increase the production we can start casking some of it. By Peruvian law, you need to spend two years in a cask before you can be called a whisky, so we can’t really go there yet. The other is an aguardiente which is a generic term for an aquavit; sadly, it translates as “burning water,” which doesn’t help so much with a lot of the market.
MALT: How do you communicate with consumers about something that’s so unconventional and out of the mainstream?
Haresh: We’re arrogant enough to think we’re going to survive not following the rules. We’re coming up with our own terminology. We’ve very grounded in Andean tradition. The Andes people have done these things, just like Italy did their thing, Spain did their thing, and now a century or two later it’s accepted. Back two centuries ago, it wasn’t. That’s a huge part of the history of spirits. The strategy we have as a distillery is to stay true to where we are, which is an area that was isolated until 30 years ago and has all these deep traditions.
MALT: How do you think about your role, upholding traditions in a country and community that is rapidly changing, with an influx of tourists?
Haresh: It’s huge. It’s changing so quickly. There’s things that you think are there, and then they’re just gone. They’re literally knocking down temples in parts of Peru to build apartment buildings. Not in our valley, luckily.
For example, we were going to use local glass blowers to make our bottles when we started. Within six years of starting there’s no one left making bottles. We recently found glass blowers in Lima working in poorer neighborhoods with recycled glass. They do these bluish greenish brownish bottles. We’re going to see if we can actually get them to make bottles for us and keep them alive for a while.
People still come and they feel like it’s the most beautiful place in the world, even though I see it with eyes that have been there for 20 years. I walk around and there’s people dressed in ponchos and incredible hats, but kids are being born today that aren’t going to get see that. The people who are dressed like that today are having kids that are wearing hoodies.
Land reform was really recent. People are adapting very quickly to the modern globalized world, coming almost out of the middle ages. It’s rapidly changing and it hasn’t really been vaccinated against this kind of change. We don’t know.
And we don’t know what effect we’re having, either, but we’re too small to have a massive effect. As a distillery, we’re small. We sell 600 liters a month in a good month. It’s pretty tiny. We’re hoping to get bigger. But we’re in a valley where there’s also Hyatt Regencies and Hiltons. We’re a small drop in that bucket, but we’re still a drop in that bucket. Those are our customers as well. You have to stay humble and realize your impact is tiny, but you also have to be careful enough to, when you do have an impact, try to not take for granted that you’re always doing the right thing. It’s a complicated process.
MALT: So we wouldn’t expect you guys to sell out to Diageo any time soon?
Haresh: [Laughs] It’s funny, because we need capital and we need to grow, and all the models for growth in distilleries are about “get the money so you’re sellable in a few years.” Everyone that approaches us is like “Let’s pump a bunch of money in and make this big and then we can sell it in a few years to a big company.” It’s not the reason I started a distillery.
MALT: In what ways are you looking to expand?
Haresh: We have three things we’re looking to do at the same time. We want to build a better distilling facility. We’d also like to build, attached to the distillery, something like a bar or restaurant with a store. Make some money off the people that drop by, make it a bit of a destination. In Cusco, where every tourist comes through, we’re looking at opening a restaurant/bar/tasting room there.
MALT: Are you planning to get into export markets?
Haresh: We’re going to start exporting this year to the States. We’re working with a small company that works with (chef) José Andrés. He’s got this setup to import stuff from Latin America. It looks like we have formula approval; now we need to get label approval from the TTB. They’re concerned mostly with Washington D.C. and New York, where he’s focused.
MALT: Tell me about your association with Mil, and this bottle of Espiritu that resulted from it?
Haresh: That’s been a good relationship since the beginning. Central (Restaurante, in Lima) is still probably our biggest customer, which is surprising. For a high-end restaurant to buy six cases of high-end spirits a month, that’s rare. It’s not a nightclub. We’ve been paired with their tasting menu for two years now and continue to collaborate with them on a number of interesting things.
Right now we’re developing a liqueur for Kjolle, in the same building. Kjolle is the botanical that grows at high altitude. We were tasked with developing a liqueur based on kjolle for them. We spent about six months in development and we finally got it where everyone’s happy. They’re small projects; no one is going to get rich making a liqueur for one restaurant, but they’re a lot of fun and they keep us creating and thinking.
That still (in the bar at Mil) is ours, and we do the distillation there. Some of the stuff with Mil you see, like the Espiritu, we’re trying to replicate at a bigger scale and maybe make it more flavor-intense. A lot of these things were steps along the way to get this other thing (compuesto) figured out.
There’s two varieties of Espiritu; one is green and gold. The green is fennel and a wild Andean anise extraction. We don’t add sugar to much of what we do. We just rely on the sweetness of the cane spirit.
The gold is a weird, interesting experiment. We have a harvest season for the grains in the high Andes in June. The rainy season has been over for a couple months, so all the grain is dry on the stalk. People go through and harvest. Everyone harvests communally, so you’ll be out there driving around the countryside and you’ll see whole villages of people out there harvesting barley or wheat. They help each other and then when they’re done harvesting they burn the fields.
For about a month everyone smells like grain. Every hand, every person you meet, every thing smells like grain. And then there’s the smell of smoke and ash when they burn the fields. So I wanted to try and capture that in a spirit because it’s something that’s really rare and kind of beautiful. So I took a lot of the straw and let it sit in our spirit for a month, and then I distilled it just to extract the straw perfume. Then I let that, at high proof, filter through toasted barley straw, corn husks, and quinoa roots. That’s what gives it the color and the taste. Quinoa, the aroma on the stems is really weird, but the roots are really nice. The botanical essence of sugarcane is still in there; there’s a grassiness that comes from the sugarcane.
With that in mind, let’s consider the bottle at (in) hand. When I purchased it, I noticed the ingredients were listed as “Panca maiz” (Panca corn), “Quinua” (quinoa) and “Trigo” (wheat). I assumed, incorrectly, that this was the mash bill. However, as noted above, this is a compuesto, steeping in parts of those plants.
This was distilled on 3/7/2018. It is bottle #40 of lot #02, bottled at 42.5%. I paid the equivalent of US$60 for 375 ml.
Destilería Andina Espíritu – Review
Color: Pale corn husk
On the nose: Sweet grassiness predominates. There’s a slightly herbal scent of anise, some soft lavender and a confectionary scent of bubblegum. More sniffing yields a sweet corniness, the faintly smoky heat of grilled peppers, a citric burst of fresh lime, the dry savory essence of smoked salt, and the woody, herbal fragrance of medicinal tree bark.
In the mouth: Texturally variegated in a fascinating way. Starts with a sweet and hot nip of pure spirit. At the midpalate this blooms into a more full expression of raw sugar, again with a pronounced herbal accent. This transitions into a woody and peppery note that balances against the exotically sugary sweetness. Finishes short and clean, but a bit of spicy residual heat lingers on the top of the mouth.
An interesting introduction to what Destilería Andina is doing. I’m declining to score this one, lacking any kind of meaningful framework for critical evaluation of compuestos. I will say that it had many positives, including a multifaceted nose and a mouthfeel that indicates a high quality spirit base. To pick a few nits: it finished somewhat short, and the low bottling strength left it feeling a bit thin at points. However, those are relatively minor qualms about what is overall a unique, compelling concoction.
I hope the interview gave you a sense of the deeply thoughtful nature of what Haresh and the Destilería Andina team are doing. They are balanced on a precipice between ancient traditions and the modern world, which is rapidly changing the lives of everyone in their vicinity. They’re circumspect about their role in this process, and seem committed to acting with integrity, and for the benefit of their community.
Sincere thanks to Haresh for his extreme generosity with his time and meditations. If you find yourself in the Sacred Valley, you’d be remiss to not patronize Destilería Andina (and perhaps Haresh’s partner’s restaurant, Chuncho) and sample some of this for yourself.