A Primer to Peruvian Pisco


[Photograph: Paul Clarke]

The world of drink is always in flux, with ever-shifting trends and tastes influencing what's popularly poured at a given time. At one point, gin is in, and a year later, everyone's drinking mezcal. Currently, there's a spirit that's long languished in semi-obscurity, but producers and importers are hoping and anticipating that the coming year could be its moment: pisco.

At its most basic, pisco is South American brandy, produced from several styles of grapes, including some familiar to the wine world. Pisco is made in Peru and Chile (though there are pisco-style brandies made in California and Washington), and these countries have long sparred over which has claim to being the birthplace and true homeland of the spirit (in recent trade debates, Peru seems to have made a more convincing case), as well as over their similar yet different approaches to producing pisco.

Chilean piscos such as Capel and Alto del Carmen are somewhat easy to find in U.S. liquor stores, but for now I'm going to focus on Peruvian piscos, for a couple of reasons: first, we'll be seeing more Peruvian pisco in bars and shops in the year to come, and second, I visited Lima earlier this month in an effort to learn more about the spirit, so the details of Peru's approach to pisco are still fresh in my mind.

Produced since the early 17th century, Peruvian pisco is largely made in the Ica region of southern Peru. Eight grape varietals are used in Peruvian pisco, ranging from non-aromatic styles such as Quebranta, which is the most widely used and contributes a dry earthiness to the finished spirit, to aromatic varieties such as moscatel and Italia, which can contribute a heady perfume of jasmine and honeysuckle, along with a bright sweetness.

Each grape varietal may be distilled and bottled on its own, for pisco puro—Quebranta is the most popular style, but Italia, Torontel, Mollar and other styles are also prepared this way—or the different grapes or distillates may be blended at some point to match their complementing characteristics, producing an Acholado pisco, the most familiar type found in the U.S. (Another style, Mosto Verde, is made from partially fermented grape must, which may lend a distinctive flavor and sweetness to the spirit.)

Distilled in a copper-pot still and rested after distillation (classically in earthenware vessels, but today more often in glass, stainless steel or inert plastic containers), Peruvian pisco isn't aged in oak barrels like familiar French brandies, which take much of their color and flavor from the wood, nor is it diluted or altered in any way before bottling. This results in a spirit that is at once bold and complexly nuanced, and depending on the style of grapes, with a flavor that can be dry and mineral or bright, sweet and floral.

Often consumed on its own in Peru, pisco is popularly served in a Pisco Sour, made with lime, sugar, egg white and bitters. San Francisco, which had a brisk trade in pisco during the Gold Rush, is home to the pineapple-rich Pisco Punch, and bars in Lima serve variations on the sour including the Coca Sour, with coca leaves either shaken in the drink or infused in the spirit, as well as sours flavored with mango or passionfruit.

While brands such as Macchu Pisco and Bar Sol have made the rounds of American bars, there's recently been a bit of activity on the pisco front. Last year, San Francisco bar owner Duggan McDonnell introduced Campo de Encanto pisco (which I mentioned last summer), an Acholado produced in Peru that was designed to have the assertive balance of flavor sought by many American craft bartenders.

A familiar sight on a number of Bay Area bar menus, Campo de Encanto is expanding into additional markets, including New York and Washington state, and was recently awarded "Best in Show" at a national pisco competition in Peru. This winter saw the debut of Piscologia, which introduced an Acholado and plans to bring in single varietals in the future; Piscologia is currently available in California and Washington. And this spring, bars in California, Texas and New York will see the debut of a Mosto Verde pisco from Pisco Porton, a producer with ambitious goals for the future.

It's too soon to tell if 2011 will be pisco's year, but expect to see this distinctive brandy popping up in new places. Are you already a fan of pisco? What kinds do you enjoy, and what are your favorite pisco cocktails?