What is Pisco?

Pisco is a spirit you’ve likely heard of, especially as a Pisco Sour, but maybe don’t know much about otherwise. Believe it or not, the U.S. is the second biggest importer of Pisco in the world, and its popularity is only growing as mixologists and drinkers discover new ways to enjoy it. For those who haven’t tried Pisco or need a quick primer, we dedicate this article to you. Ready to fall into the pisco barrel fully and go deep on this regional treat? Check out our favorite Pisco book as a great resource as well.

What is Pisco?

In a nutshell, Pisco is a South American Brandy made in Peru or Chile.  The earliest accounts of Pisco date back to the 1700s when the Spanish arrived in the region.  If you ask locals where Pisco comes from, you will find yourself in a long, hotly contested debate.  Brandy is a widely produced spirit in South America, but Peru and Chili are the only countries permitted to call the wine Brandy “Pisco.” Many believe Peru is the birthplace of Pisco, and therefore only country that has the right to use the term.

The debate over Pisco resulted in laws to protect the Peruvian and Chilean Pisco producers.  It is illegal to import Chilean Pisco into Peru.  Meanwhile imported Peruvian Pisco into Chile must be relabeled as aguardiente (a generic term for a fermented beverage) or destilado de uva (grape distillate).

How is Pisco Made?

pisco grapes

Pisco production is highly regulated. In Peru, the wine-base must be made from certain grape varietals: four red “non-aromatic” and four white “aromatic” grapes.  Like wine, producers can choose to use one varietal (a puro) or multiple varietals (an acholado) to create a complex final product.

Once producers harvest and select their grapes for the wine-base, the grape juice ferments for approximately 2-3 weeks.  The result is a low alcohol content wine (8-10% ABV). Some producers stop fermentation early to prevent some sugar from transforming into alcohol, resulting in a sweeter final product referred to as a Mosto Verde.

Now the fun part…distillation (for a quick refresher on distillation in general head on over here). Producers distill the wine in homemade copper pot stills, typically heated with a fire.  Once heated, the low alcohol content wine vaporizes and the condensed liquid is collected.  The collected liquid is roughly 35-45% ABV.

Wait For It…

The collected alcohol sits in glass, stainless steel, or special Pisco jars (botijas) for a minimum of three months.  “Oh, so this is where Pisco ages,” you say.  NO NO NO!  Pisco, unlike its wine Brandy counterparts, Cognac or Armagnac, is not aged.  Instead, it sits in “repose” for three months in these vessels, which does not alter its physical or chemical properties.  This process is like allowing a steak or a Thanksgiving turkey to rest. A crucial, yet very difficult pause!

The final step is bottling.  Peruvian regulations prohibit adding anything to Pisco even water to protect the color and flavor of the national libation and to maintain the alcohol proof.

How does Pisco taste?

Friends cheersing with pisco

Fabulous, duh! Depending on the grapes and the varietals used, Piscos can be dry like a crisp, mineral white wine, or sweet and floral.  I recommend trying your first sip on its own to pick up the different citrus undertones, or a Mosto Verde style as an aperitif. Pisco is popularly served in a punch or combined with lime, sugar, egg whites, and a dash of bitters in the ever so delicious, Pisco Sour recipe.

Does the sound of Pisco sours and punches make you pucker your lips?  Another pisco drink we recommend is mixing pisco with ginger beer and a squeeze of lime for a simple, tangy drink.  When the weather is cold, mix pisco with coffee and milk for a cozy cocktail. For a touch of luxury, top off your flute of sparkling brut with a splash of Pisco.

Hey Tippler Nation, have you tried Pisco?  Tell us how you enjoy your Pisco so we can all start getting this fabulous spirit into more regular rotation!

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