You may never have heard of pisco, but if you’re a cocktail fan, you should keep an eye out. It’s going to be trendy this year, and it offers some unique flavors you can’t get with a lot of other spirits. Plus, it has a cool backstory. So we are here, dear reader, to educate you with (almost) everything you need to know about this spirit you will soon be drinking.
WHAT IS PISCO?
It’s an unaged brandy distilled from fermented grape juice. Pisco from Peru must be made from one or more of eight different grape varietals, and it’s only allowed to be distilled once. Peruvian pisco also must be bottled at still strength—no dilution or barrel-aging is allowed. This means it’s distilled at very low proof (typically around 80 or 90), which allows a lot of interesting flavor chemicals through that aren’t found in most other spirits. In Chile, on the other hand, the rules are different: Only three grape varietals are allowed, and multiple distillations, dilution to bottling proof and barrel-aging are a-OK. This difference is caught up in the intense boozy conflict between the two countries (more on that later).
When the Spanish conquered South America, they discovered that wine grapes from their native land grew well in a region of what’s now southern Peru and northern Chile. Sometime in the 17th century, some enterprising vintner decided to up the alcoholic punch of his wine by distilling it, and pisco was born. The brandy is named after a port town in Peru, which itself gets it name from a word in the native Quechua language. (The word referred to either a bird or a clay jar—the experts are divided on this.)
THE PISCO WARS
As I mentioned above, pisco is made in both Chile and Peru, and when it comes to brandy, the two nations hate each other. Peru maintains that it has the exclusive right to the pisco name, given its status as the spirit’s homeland, but thanks to the less restrictive regulations, Chile makes far more pisco than its neighbor (though, confusingly, Peru exports way more). No spirit made in Chile can be labeled pisco in Peru, and nothing Peruvian can get the label in Chile. Complicated wrangling in international trade has led to a patchwork of pisco labeling laws in different countries, but here in the US, both Peruvian and Chilean piscos are now available. And, of course, both countries lay claim to the classic Pisco Sour cocktail. (In reality, the concoction was invented by a bartender—from Utah of all places—who ran a watering hole in Lima, Peru in the early 1900s.)
THE CALIFORNIA CONNECTION
Brandy imported from South America doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would tickle the fancy of Old West miner types, but during the Gold Rush and through the rest of the 1800s, the stuff was all the rage in San Francisco. It actually does make sense: It was cheaper at the time to move booze up the Pacific coast by ship than to haul it over land from the East Coast, where most American whiskey was being made. The most famous cocktail of the era was the Pisco Punch, a powerful mix of pisco, lime and pineapple. Its birthplace was a popular San Francisco saloon called the Bank Exchange (Mark Twain was a regular), which is now the site of the Transamerica Pyramid. Today, there’s even a movement afoot to get the Pisco Punch named the city’s official cocktail.
TIME TO DRINK
• Puro pisco is made from a single type of grape. The most common type is quebranta, which yields a fruity and earthy spirit. There are also puros made from “aromatic” grapes like muscat, albilla and italia, which makes for a more floral spirit. These piscos are versatile, good for either cocktails or sipping.
Brands to try: Campo de Encanto Distiller’s Reserve Quebranta, BarSol Selecto Italia
• Acholado pisco is a mix of different grape varietals, blended together for consistency of flavor from batch to batch. It still has pisco’s characteristic floral notes, with a slightly toned-down earthiness. Definitely one for mixing.
Brands to try: Macchu Pisco La Diablada, Kappa
• Mosto Verde pisco is made from grape juice that’s distilled before it’s fully fermented, when it still contains some sugar. The resulting spirit has lots of sweetness and some nice grainy funk. It’s best enjoyed neat, but it can also make an interesting mixed drink.
Brand to try: Portón