Pisco

Pisco - a complete guide to the South American liquor

By Sina / Last updated on June 17, 2022 
When it comes to liquor, Pisco is one of the most successful exports from South America. Still, many don't know what Pisco actually is. It's about time to change that.

Pisco is one of the South American favorites when it comes to cocktails and mixology. It's a Brandy made from grapes that can be either clear-colored or have an amber shade.

One of the most popular drinks and the national cocktail of Peru and Chile is the Pisco Sour. Why Peru and Chile? Because there's an ongoing dispute about who invented the high-proof spirit. 

It is unlikely that the question of origin will get answered satisfactorily in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, there are a lot of facts worth knowing about Pisco.

What is Pisco

Pisco is a high-proof spirit distilled from fermented grape juice. It can be either see-through and colorless (called transparente) or have a slightly yellow to amber shade. It has an average ABV of 38 to 48% and is often unaged. 

The traditional South American spirit is produced in the wine-growing areas of Chile and Peru. The grapes used for making the spirit are of the Muscat or Italia variety. 

How does Pisco taste?

Generally, Pisco is quite fruity, a little sweet, and you can definitely taste the grapes. If you have a quality Pisco in front of you, it will have a smooth mouthfeel, and some brands also offer a hint of herbal earthiness.

Many compare it to Grappa (especially the Peruvian type), an unaged grape spirit from Italy. Both are based on grapes and have a fruity aroma. But Grappa has quite an alcoholic bite, which Pisco usually doesn't.

Because Pisco rests and matures in neutral vessels - glass or steel instead of wood- the aroma of the grape variety used always shines through. 

Pisco Cocktail

The grapes used to produce Pisco can be tart and more citrusy or fruity like apples and peaches. Some varieties used are almost nutty, and others are sweet and fragrant like vanilla.

Depending on the type of Pisco, these aromas can be more or less pronounced.

Types of Pisco

As with other spirits like Whiskey, Rum, or said Tequila, there are different types of Pisco.

In general, you can distinguish between Peruvian and Chilean Pisco. And each of the two categories has its own subtypes and classifications.

Chilean Pisco 

The grapes mainly used for Chilean Pisco are of the Muscat family, with some vineyards also cultivating other varieties. 

In 1931, the Chilean government issued a denomination of origin (D.O.) for Pisco. Since then, it can only be produced in the valleys of Copiapó, Huasco, Elqui, Limarí, and, later, Choapa. 

-That, by the way, was the first D.O. ever issued in the Americas.

Types of Chilean Pisco

Along with the D.O., the government also decided on an official classification for Pisco. Unlike the different types of Tequila or Mezcal, this classification has nothing to do with aging. 

It's also not about the sugar content, as it is for Prosecco. The four main types of Chilean Pisco are defined solely by the alcohol content:

Pisco Corriente o Tradicional with 30% to 34,9% vol. (60 to 70 proof)

Pisco Especial with 35% to 39,9% vol. (70 to 80 proof)

Pisco Reservado with 40% vol. (80 proof)

Gran Pisco with 43% vol. or more (86 or more proof)

For all these types, Chile has defined some additional regulations. All distillers have to cultivate their own grapes for their spirit. The majority of these grapes need to be from certain varieties defined by the government.

Plus, producers have to use traditional production methods. Otherwise, they cannot label their spirit Pisco.

Popular Chilean Pisco brands are Alto de Carmen, Kappa, and Pisco Espiritu del Elqui.

Peruvian Pisco

Exactly 60 years after Chile issued the first D.O. for its Pisco, Peru did follow. Since 1991, the law requires Pisco to come from one of five D.O. departments. These departments are Lima, Arequipa, Ica, Tacna, and Moquegua.

However, in contrast to products from Chile, Peruvian Pisco can be made from various grapes. That leads to a wide variety of flavors and different viscosities and appearances of the spirit.

This circumstance, in turn, meant that it was difficult for Peru to export their products under a single denomination. 

Types of Peruvian Pisco

Therefore, they decided on four general categories of their Pisco. For each of these categories, the government had defined different rules and regulations that must be met:

Puro (Pure): that type is made from a single sort of grape. The blending of different types of grapes is not accepted within this category. Plus, the grapes for Puro must be non-aromatic. -Mostly, they are of the Quebranta variety.

Aromáticas (Aromatic): like Puro, Pisco Aromáticas must be made with just one sort of grape. But for this category, it's aromatic grapes only. Typically that would be grapes of the Muscat family, or also Italia and some others. Those are also the grapes typical for Chilean Pisco.

Acholado (Multivarietal): For Pisco Acholado, producers can use different types of grapes. It is the least stringent category.

Mosto Verde (Green Must): for making Mosto Verde, the grape must gets distilled before the fermentation process is completed. So, not all sugar has transformed into alcohol at the time of distillation.

Then, there are regulations that apply to all of the above-listed categories: 

First, Peruvian Pisco needs to age for a minimum of three months in inorganic vessels. That would be glass, steel, and the like. It cannot be anything that would alter the taste of the spirit. Consequently, wood barrels are not an option.

Second, no additives that can potentially alter the flavor, appearance, aroma, or alcohol content are allowed.

The second point is cause for another noteworthy difference from the Chilean version: Peruvian Pisco never gets diluted with water. It's bottled straight at its distillation strength. 

Popular Peruvian Pisco brands are Cuatro Gallos (short: Cuatro G's), La Caravedo, and BarSol.

Differences between Peruvian and Chilean Pisco

Peruvian Pisco and Chilean Pisco are not the same. They share the same fruity base - grapes brought to the region from Spain - and the same name. But apart from that, the two spirits are quite different.

In a nutshell, here are the most important aspects that tell them apart:

Grapes

Peru defined eight varieties allowed for Pisco production. Chilean producers can use 13. Some are the same sorts, but Peru cultivates them in a more humid climate while Chile's farmers grow them in desert conditions.

grapes

And in Chile, Pisco producers need to use their own grapes, which Peruvian law does not require.

ABV

Chile's producers can distill their Pisco as many times as they like, which leads to higher alcohol content. On the other hand, they can dilute their product to lower ABV. That leads to a huge spectrum regarding ABV. They also categorize their Pisco depending on ABV.

Peruvian Pisco is only distilled once and bottled straight at distillation strength. -Adding water is prohibited. The alcohol level has to be between 38 and 48% vol.

Taste

Multiple distillations remove impurity but also flavor. That's why Peruvian Pisco usually is more aromatic than Chilean. However, that also depends on the grapes used for production as Peruvian law mostly requires varietal purity, and Chile does not.

Generally, you can say that Pisco from Peru is more fruity than that from Chile. However, unlike Peru, Chile allows additives that can alter the flavor of the spirit.

Production

Peruvian Pisco must be distilled in copper pot stills. After distillation, it can rest only in neutral vessels, like copper, glass, or steel. 

Also, unlike Chileans, Peruvians often use not fully fermented grape must for their Pisco. No additives are allowed, and the spirit needs to be bottled at distillation strength.

Chilean Pisco rests in wooden barrels, and additives like water, sugar, or coloring are allowed. Also, a column-style still cannot be used, nor is continuous distillation allowed. It can be discontinuous only. They use copper stills similar to the alembics for Cognac production.

Origin/History of Pisco

Spanish seafarers brought grapevines to South America in the mid-16th century. Only a few years later, by 1560, Peru was producing wine commercially.

The wine industry in the region quickly grew bigger and bigger, and it wasn't too long before the Spanish Crown became concerned about it. After all, they wanted to sell and export their wine to the Americas.

Consequently, the Spanish prohibited establishing new vineyards from 1595 onwards. With a safe distance of over 5000 miles between Peru and Spain, most of which is across the water, one can imagine that this ban wasn't taken too seriously. Wine was, therefore, plentiful in the country.

The problems arose when the Spanish started to prohibit and control the export of Peruvian wine. Now there was an immense surplus of grapes and wine, which probably was why people started making local Brandy from the fruits. 

Around the same time, the Peruvian coastal town of Santa Maria Magdalena established its "Port of Pisco" as the distribution hub for Aguardiente. 

Pisco amphoras

Aguardiente is the generic term for traditional Latin American high-proof alcoholic beverages. And from the early 17th century onwards, it often had a grape base, presumably due to the previously explained surplus. 

Across the decades, sailors entering the Port of Pisco caused a growing demand for the grape spirit. They also distributed it along the coastline and beyond. And adopting the name of the port, the town of Santa Maria Magdalena and the grape spirit were soon known as Pisco.

Despite everything, Peruvians continued to use their grapes primarily for making wine. It took more than a century for Pisco production to catch up. However, by the 1760s, Pisco accounted for over 90% of the produced grape beverages, leaving wine far behind.

Is Pisco from Peru or Chile?

Presumingly, as one can tell from the early history of Pisco, Peru was the first country to produce it. Still, there is an ongoing dispute between Chile and Peru regarding the origin of a grape spirit with the name Pisco.

As you can see from the respective regulations, Peruvian Pisco and Chilean Pisco are not really the same thing. So the main controversy is actually about the name.

Both countries have Pisco as their national drink, they both rely on the spirit economically, and both may have a right to call it their own. 

Yes, the first official record of Pisco as a grape spirit is from Peru, and so is the name. But that doesn't mean that Chile didn't start producing a similar alcoholic beverage from grapes around the same time. After all, the Spanish also settled there and brought their grapevines to the country.

The Chileans are said to have copied the name when they couldn't come up with an idea of their own. But there's no evidence that proves Peru to be the country that first produced what later was called Pisco. 

Neither do we have proof that Chile didn't use the name Pisco before Peruvians did. In 1936, Chile even named a village in the Elqui valley Pisco Elqui to support their claims. I don't think that helped their cause a lot, though.

Who sells more? Chile or Peru?

Peru is the clear winner when it comes to sales volumes. Over the past five years, the country has been exporting almost three times as much Pisco as Chile did.

And also, the consumption of Pisco in liters per person is higher in Peru than in Chile. Funnily enough, the top importing country of Peruvian Pisco is, in fact, Chile.

Yet, looking back another 15 to 20 years, the situation was quite different. Chile had an export volume for Pisco that outranked the Peruvians by far. According to eater.com, around the Millenium, Chile used to export approximately 20 times more than Peru.

You're wondering what happened? Peruvian government and producers invested a lot of work and time into their Pisco business, and it appears it has paid off.

How to drink Pisco

You can drink Pisco neat, on the rocks, in a mixed drink, prior to a meal, and after finishing it. At least, if you listen to people from Chile and Peru, you can consume Pisco in any form and fashion. 

Pisco Sour

In Peru, there's one more way: They infuse their Pisco with fruits and herbs and call the results macerados. Many bars and restaurants offer these drinks in all sorts and flavors. 

The macerados are commonly used in cocktails, as they would be too aromatic to consume them purely. Typical flavors would be strawberry, coconut, pineapple or coca leaves, ginger, and chili.

How is Pisco made

As mentioned before, there are differences in producing Peruvian and Chilean Pisco. Very generally, the process of making Pisco is as follows: 

After harvesting the grapes, you crush them to release their juices. Traditionally, men engage in a procedure called grape-stomping. And that is exactly what you might suspect: barefoot men stomping on grapes.

Of course, where modern technology is allowed, machines took over the task of crushing the grapes.

The crushed grapes are filled in large tubs and left to ferment for a few days. Natural yeast in grape skins helps to transform the sugar into alcohol.

Once fermentation has completed, the resulting mash gets distilled, rested, and then bottled.

Cocktails with Pisco

The best known and most popular cocktail containing Pisco is the Pisco Sour. You can get it basically everywhere when in Peru or Chile. It's a classic Sour Cocktail that follows the template of base spirit, lemon juice, and simple syrup, plus egg white and a dash of bitters.

Another traditional and popular drink is the Chilcano de Pisco. It's a composition of Pisco, ginger ale, lime juice, and Angostura bitters. 

A blend that came from the US-West Coast and came up during the Gold Rush in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It's the so-called Pisco Punch, a mix of simple syrup, lemon juice, pineapple juice, and Pisco.

The Judgement Day cocktail combines Pisco with elderflower liqueur - St. Germain is the leading brand here. The remaining components of this drink are lime and lemon juice, syrup, egg white, and Pimento Dram bitters.

Apart from those, you can tweak many cocktail classics and replace the base spirit with Pisco. For more ideas and recipes, read this list of the best Pisco cocktails.

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