Pisco is a deceptive creature -- a viscous liquid that hides its alcoholic potency
behind a beautiful smoothness and purity that can often trick the unseasoned drinker.
However, when treated with the attention it deserves, this grape-based spirit, with
a history steeped in the conquest of the Americas by the Conquistadors, is one of
the best-kept secrets in the world of mixology.
Pisco is also the topic of heated arguments between Peru and Chile, both of which
claim to have invented it. They may fight bitterly over who first distilled the drink,
but the rules and regulations they have placed on its production have ensured that
only top quality Pisco hits the shelves.
Unfortunately, regulation has also resulted in limited promotion and for many years
bottles of Pisco sat unnoticed and overlooked on the back bar, as cocktail enthusiasts
called out for their brands of vodka, gin, rum, and tequila. Thankfully, that’s changing
and the subtleties of Pisco are being discovered by a new generation of bartenders.
Pisco has its origins in the 16th century Spanish conquests of Latin America and
particularly Peru and Chile, where the conquistadors found fertile land suitable
for growing grapes. So successful were these vineyards, particularly those using
the hardy Quebranta grape, that soon the settlers were exporting crops back to Europe
and challenging the sales of old-world produced wines.
At first, grapes not suitable for making wines were distilled into a brandy, similar
to the aguardiente available in Spain and Colombia, and it soon became popular with
sailors who began taking bottles with them back to Europe. They named the spirit
after the town where it was bought, Pisco, which in turn had been named for the round
earthenware pot that was used to store the liquor.
In the 19th century Pisco became a popular drink with the miners flooding to the
San Francisco for the Gold Rush, and in the 1940s it again became a fashionable drink
in New York and Hollywood. Celebrity aficionados have included the author Rudyard
Kipling, who described Pisco this way: “(Pisco is) compounded of the shavings of
cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and the fragments
of lost epics by dead masters."
Production gradually spread from Peru to Chile and there has been a continuing debate
between the two countries as to who has the right to claim ownership of the name.
The drinks in the two countries are slightly different; Peru allows two types of
production, the pure version still being made from the Quebranta, Mollar and Negra
Corriente grapes and a more aromatic version made with different grape varieties.
Chile only makes the aromatic version, and ages it in wood with some distilled water
added in at the end of production.
One thing Chile and Peru can decide on, however, is that the best way to drink Pisco
is in the classic Pisco Sour.
It is also worth sampling on its own, and the first thing to notice is the viscous
quality of the drink as it coats the glass after the first swirl and the aroma, particularly
from the pure Peruvian Quebranta variety, is recognisable immediately as that of
Although some purists will insist on drinking their Pisco neat, it is best used as
a base for cocktails where the clean taste of the spirit acts as a superb base for
other ingredients. In this way, Pisco has something in common with the other hot
South American spirit, cachaca.
The tastes of the more aromatic versions depend on the grape or blend of grapes used,
but will often display strong floral qualities and a citrus nose that carries through
onto the taste buds.
Both the classic and aromatic versions are incredibly smooth on the tongue and belie
their alcohol content, which is often above 40%
There are over 250 Pisco producers in Peru and almost as many in Chile, so there
are lots to choose from. Here are some brands and you can order many of them online.
Don Cesar Pisco Puro
Barsol Pisco Acholado
We generally prefer the Peruvian version, but these three brands from Chile are definitely
worth seeking out.