This three part primer is a spirited introduction to the oldest grape distillate in the Americas, pisco. Part 1 defines pisco, then explores its origins and historical connection to San Francisco, before covering its presence around the world. Part 2 takes a look at pisco’s grape varietals and producing regions, then describes the distillation process, all of which give pisco its unique taste and terroir. Part 3 provides guidelines for selecting the right pisco for your (home) bar, reviews four classic pisco cocktails, and gives recommendations for making your own pisco cocktails.
What is Pisco?
Pisco is a clear, unaged, grape brandy from Peru. It’s earliest production dates back 400 years to the Ica Valley south of Lima, making it the oldest grape distillate in the Americas. Today, pisco is the national spirit of Peru and is produced following a strict denomination of origin controlled (DOC) process that allows only eight grape varietals grown in five regions. These grapes are fermented to make wine, and the wine is distilled only once to proof to make pisco. The result is a spirit with a rich history and terroir that can be enjoyed neat or mixed in a cocktail.
Spain’s foodways brought the Listán Prieto grape to Peru in the early 1500’s, making Peru the earliest wine producing region in South America. But Peru’s wine rivaled Spain’s, so the king restricted wine production in Peru forcing local winemakers to embrace distillation. In the tradition of the Old World, the first grape distillate in Peru was called aguardiente de uva, after the aqua ardens (fire water) or eau de vie (water of life) first made by alchemists in the Middle Ages. Eventually, the name changed to pisco, after the port of Pisco in the Ica Valley.
Pisco’s Connection to San Francisco
Navigator Bodega y Cuadra brought pisco to San Francisco during his expeditions from the Viceroyalty of Peru to California in the late 1700’s. During the California Gold Rush in the next century, Pacific trade routes once again brought pisco from Peru to California. Fortune seekers traveling from the East Coast to California sailed around South America, stopped in Peru, and picked up pisco. From the late 1800’s until Prohibition, pisco was San Francisco’s spirit of choice, and the cocktail of the city was the legendary Pisco Punch.
Pisco Around the World
The word pisco is from Peru: it refers to the spirit, it means “little bird” in Quechua, it’s the port of Pisco, and the earthen jars used to store the spirit. However, producers in Chile make their own version using different grapes and double distillation. They also add water and age the spirit in wood barrels. For a while, Leopold Bros. in Colorado produced a Pisco Style American Brandy. In California, Marian Farms and Frísco Brandy produce a pisco-inspired unaged brandy from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. And in Australia, Harmans Estate winery makes their own pisco.
Pisco Grape Varietals
There are eight grape varietals used to make pisco: four aromatic, and four non-aromatic. The aromatic grapes are Italia, Torontel, Albilla, and Moscatel. The non-aromatic grapes are Uvina, Quebranta, Mollar, and Negra Criolla. The Negra Criolla is another name for the original Listán Prieto grape, which in California became known as the Mission Grape. While many of these grape varietals have origins that can be traced back to the Old World, Quebranta is Peru’s only indigenous vinifera, and it’s a cross between the Mollar and Negra Criolla.
Pisco Producing Regions
There are five pisco producing regions in Peru: Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua, Tacna, and Lima. Located some 200 miles south of Lima, Ica is the largest and most popular region. There, the wineries and distilleries that produce pisco are connected by La Ruta del Pisco, or The Pisco Trail. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, and the foothills of the Andes in the east, Ica has been home to vineyards for over 400 years. With the exception of Lima, all other regions are south of Lima; however, Arequipa and Moquegua are at considerably higher elevations.
How is Pisco Made?
Grapes are harvested during the vendimia, then they are crushed and naturally fermented to make wine, and the wine is distilled only once to proof using copper alembics to make pisco. After separating the head and tail, the body is a 38-48% ABV spirit that is rested for months in nonreactive containers before bottling. Nothing, not even water is added. A single grape varietal is known as puro, while a blend of varietals is an acholado. A mosto verde pisco is made after a shortened fermentation period, yielding a sweeter more aromatic spirit, regardless of varietal.
Tasting pisco is much like tasting wine, as both are terroir-driven. First, look at the color, it should be clear. Next swirl the glass and observe the tears, they should be viscous, reflecting the high alcohol content. The nose can hint at various flavors: typically peach, apple, nuts, cinnamon, vanilla, or chocolate for non-aromatic varietals; compared to mandarin, jasmin, honey, lemon grass, pineapple, or mango for aromatic varietals. Finally, the taste should be a balance between aromatics and alcohol content that is smooth and warm on the palate.
Neat or in a Cocktail?
According to Ricardo Palma’s collection of historical stories, Tradiciones Peruanas, pisco was sipped neat during the Viceroyalty of Peru. But instead of saying, “let’s drink pisco,” two euphemisms were popular: “tomar las once” meant to drink the eleven, a reference to the eleven letters in aguardiente; and “remojar una aceituna” meant to soak an olive, a reference to soaking olives in your drink. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the first reference of a pisco cocktail appeared in San Francisco, followed by more pisco cocktails in Lima during the 1900’s.
Classic Pisco Cocktails
Duncan Nicol prepared the Gold Rush era Pisco Punch at San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon with pisco, lime juice, pineapple syrup, and a cocaine-laced aperitif. A 1903 Peruvian cookbook included an early version of the Pisco Sour, pisco, lime juice, sugar, and egg whites, which Victor Morris later made popular in his Lima bar. Italian immigrants in Peru are credited with two cocktails: El Capitán, a Manhattan-like cocktail made with pisco and sweet vermouth; and Chilcano, a precursor to the Moscow Mule made with pisco, lime juice, and ginger ale.
Selecting a Pisco for Your (Home) Bar
While all pisco varietals can be enjoyed neat, an aromatic Italia is smoother and more floral than a non-aromatic Quebranta, while a Mosto Verde Italia is even more so. In general, Quebranta holds up well against citrus or vermouth, while an Italia is harmonious in lighter more floral cocktails, that’s why it’s important to have both an aromatic and a non-aromatic varietal in your (home) bar. But if you can only choose one, try an Acholado, the versatile blend of aromatic and non-aromatic varietals could work well in citrus, floral, or spirit-forward drinks.
Making Your Own Pisco Cocktails
In addition to preparing classic pisco cocktails, here are four approaches to making your own: 1. swap a spirit with pisco, such as in this White Negroni riff Oro en Paz; 2. modify the syrup, such as in this Nikkei Pisco Sour variation with nori; 3. use a different citrus, such as in a Chilcano variation with blood orange; 4. infuse the pisco, such as in this eggplant infused Pisco in the Time of Cholera. In all cases, I encourage you to visit your local farmer’s market to find seasonal produce for inspiration, and visit Pisco Trail’s cocktail page for more recipes ideas.