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A Pisco Sour.
A Pisco Sour.
Shutterstock/Ildi Papp

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Pisco: A Complete Guide to the Brandy From South America

Pisco is taking U.S. cocktail culture by storm. But what is it and where does it come from?

Peruse the cocktail list at your favorite watering hole and past the classics some may stumble across a Pisco Sour, or perhaps an entirely different drink made with Peru's spirit of choice, pisco.

The U.S. is the 2nd largest importer of pisco globally behind Chile, and while it's still a tiny category here compared to other spirits, it's a sector that's rapidly growing. Pisco Portón, the largest pisco brand in the U.S., reports 59 percent growth between 2012 and 2014, while another top brand, Macchu Pisco, reports 30 percent year on year growth for the past five years running. All told, imports have doubled from 2010 to 2014, with other notable brands including Pisco Tabernero and BarSol.

But wait. What exactly is pisco, anyway?

Pisco is a type of brandy, which is to say that it's a spirit distilled from wine or fermented fruit juice. Beyond that, it's far removed from, and in some ways even diametrically opposed to, the type of brandy that most people conjure up in their heads, namely, well-aged Cognac.

"Don't be mad," jokes Johnny Schuler, master distiller of Pisco Portón, "your Cognac is made by oak, my pisco is made by god!" Before he became Pisco Portón's master distiller in 2009, via a "Texas handshake deal" and an offer he couldn't refuse from founder Bill Kallop, Schuler was an all-around advocate and promoter of the spirit, even being hands-on in creating its enhanced legal regulations and standards.

Schuler was awarded a Peruvian Congressional Medal of Honor in 2007 for his work popularizing Peruvian pisco and helping to recognize its cultural heritage, has written several books on the spirit, hosts a weekly television show, "Por Las Rutas del Pisco," and has the largest collection of pisco in the world, estimated at more than 3,000 bottles.

Decades ago though, he actually hated pisco, and in his own restaurantshe currently owns two in Lima, and his father is credited with inventing the rotating spitfire system for Peruvian rotisserie chickenhe would simply use the cheapest he could find. "I used to take a shot of pisco and ask how in the world do people even drink this stuff," he says. Then, he finally got his hands on some well-made pisco at a tasting event and learned to appreciate it. "I don't know if I fell in love with pisco or pisco fell in love with me, but the love affair has lasted ever since."

The front of one of four 3,500L copper pot stills at Pisco Portón. Photo by Jake Emen.

Pisco Regulations

Oak barrels figure prominently, and some would say dominantly, in developing the flavor profiles of aged whiskeys, brandies and rums. However, one of the key regulations of pisco is that it cannot be aged in wood at all.

"We really believe in the pristine quality of the spirit, and the grapiness that comes through," says Melanie Asher, founder and distiller of Macchu Pisco. "If you've ever tasted Cognac off the still it's not drinkable because those grapes are very acidic and the wood works to mellow it out."

... one of the key regulations of pisco is that it cannot be aged in wood at all.

The unique grapes used in pisco offer a far different result. More specifically, pisco can be made from eight varietals, including the non-aromatic grapes which the Spanish originally brought over with them for wine productionQuebranta, Negra Criolla, Uvina and Mollar, and the aromatic grapesMoscatel, Torontel, Italia and Albilla. As much as 80 percent of all pisco on the market though is made solely with or includes Quebranta. Yet, each grape offers highly distinctive characteristics.

Pisco must be made in one of five coastal valley regions of Peru, including Ica, Lima, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna. "We have that miracle in this climate, a natural greenhouse effect," says Schuler, explaining that with cold coastal waters coming up from Antarctica, and the Andes mountains to the east, the region in between is largely devoid of clouds and rain.

"It's perfect for developing an extremely sweet grape," he says, going on to explain that pisco grapes, with sugar content measured at 24.5 Brix when ripe, are generally so sweet you wouldn't want to eat more than a few at a time.

That inherent sweetness is essential because pisco, by law, can only be distilled once, in a copper pot still. It's all made possible with the unique Peruvian climate. "This desert is so hot and dry," states Schuler, "that it concentrates so much sugar that we have enough for our first distillation."

Pisco must not only be single distilled, it must also be distilled to proof, at between 38 to 48 percent ABV. That means producers can't add water after distillation, which is standard for other spirits, from whiskey to rum, vodka to gin.

Further, pisco must be distilled from wine, as opposed to the pomace leftover from wine production. "Only four [brandies] are made from wineCognac, Armagnac, Brandy de Jerez and Pisco," says Schuler. "It's a different category."

Traditional botijas, or simply "piscos," used to store pisco at the Lovera Distillery in Ica, Peru. Photo by Jake Emen.

While pisco cannot be aged in wood, it must rest for a minimum of three months in a nonreactive container, such as stainless steel or glass, or traditionally, elongated clay pitchers known as botijas, or informally, as piscos. Per law, pisco bottles cannot be labeled with an age stamp (months or years), or carry a certain vintage, but as with wine, different harvests can produce different results, and Schuler does believe that a lengthier resting produces a better spirit, so he rests his pisco for a minimum of one year. This takes its character "from a prickly pear to a silky peach," he says.

"All of those are the elements that actually make pisco completely singular in the world of spirits," boasts the never bashful Schuler. "That's what drives me to say that pisco is the best spirit distilled in the world today. It has no coloring agents, it has no wood, it has no caramel, it has no preservatives, it has no additives, it's only distilled once to proof and it has no water or sugar."

Pisco Classifications

Somehow, there's still more that goes into defining pisco. "This is where everything goes berserk," says Schuler, acknowledging the complex hierarchies and regulations involved. Pisco can fall into one of three main classifications: Puro, Acholado and Mosto Verde.

Puros are the most popular in Peru, and are made entirely from a single grape varietal. "Most importantly, they are distilled when the wine is dry and the yeast has consumed all the sugar," says Schuler. Technically, a Puro only refers to the non-aromatic grapes, while Aromaticas refers to single varietal pisco made from the aromatic grapes. To simplify though, any single varietal made from fully fermented wine may be known as a Puro, and the grape utilized will reveal itself whether or not it is aromatic.

Mosto Verdes, in contrast, are distilled when the wine is still sweet, as fermentation has not finished. This takes more grapes per liter, more work, and more time. "For me, these are the top of the line," says Schuler. This classification has risen in popularity as of late, from a small handful of producers to several dozen, according to Schuler.

Acholados are blends of any two or more different varietals. An Acholado may be made from two or more Puros, or two or more Mosto Verdes. Each brand may produce at most two Acholados, one made from Puros and one from Mosto Verdes.

Walk through the distillery at Hacienda La Caravedo in Ica, Peru, the home of Pisco Portón but also the oldest working distillery in the Americas, dating back to 1684, and sample straight from the towering stainless steel resting tanks to find a staggering range of flavors. A Quebranta Puro starts sweet and grapy, then gets spicier, peppery and earthy.  A Mosto Verde, also of Quebranta, offers a smoother, rounder flavor, with more body and less spice. Sample a Torontel Puro and find lemon zest, floral notes, rose petals and tropical fruits, and then try the earthier, richer Torontel Mosto Verde, or the Italia Mosto Verde, offering a spectacularly smooth, easy sipping profile. "People kill for it," says Schuler.

Eight grapes, all of which can be either a Puro or Mosto Verde, and that's before you even get into the unending range of blends. The scope of flavor profiles and characteristics produced is enormous.

"Each grape has its own basket of personality," says Schuler. "I don't have one favorite, I have three or four. Each has a different palate, makes for a different cocktail."

Peruvian Pisco vs. Chilean Pisco

Chile and Peru both make what they call pisco. Is it the same, is it different? For one thing, as an American consumer, Peruvian pisco is currently more available than its Chilean counterpart. "There are a lot of reasons why it's taken us so long to come back, but we're coming back, and now we're galloping. Fifteen years ago, Chile exported 20 times more than Peru," says Schuler. "Today, Peru exports two to three times as much as Chile. Why? Because of tradition, because of a lot of work, because of passion."

Of course, someone such as Schuler or Asher is naturally bound to be biased in favor of Peru. "The government is very protective of our appellation of origin, as the French are with Champagne for instance," explains Asher. "And we have very strict laws. It's very much a terroir spirit."

Elsewhere, others are more keen to focus on the differences between the two. "It's a really touchy subject," says Jasmine Chae, beverage director of chef José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup. Chae oversees the pisco program at Washington, D.C.'s China Chilcano, which offers perhaps the country's largest pisco collection, with more than 30 on its menu. "To me, they're completely different," she says, refusing, with a chuckle, to take sides as the restaurant serves both Peruvian and Chilean piscos. "It's really hard to say that one has ownership rather than the other."

Pisco Portón's Johnny Schuler leads a tasting at his distillery. Photo by Jake Emen.

...pisco can be made from eight different grape varietals...

Meanwhile, Schuler doesn't believe that true pisco can be produced in Chile. "My arguments are based on historians, map makers, cartographers, written testimonies and I am not inventing," says the loquacious Schuler. "I am a very pragmatic person."

He goes on to make his case for pisco being strictly of Peruvian heritage by tying it to the Quechua language of the Inca, in which "pisco" means small bird; by looking to historical maps, "I don't buy a map that doesn't have Pisco on it," he saysin which the oldest reference he's found to Pisco, Peru is from the 1570s. Whereas Pisco, Chile was so named in 1937 at the behest of its president, in Schuler's words, for the "economic interests of Chile"; by examining cultural shifts which emerged in the wake of the War of the Pacific between Chile, Bolivia and Peru in the late 19th century; and perhaps most importantly, at the end of the day, by explaining the different standards of Peruvian and Chilean pisco production.

Both countries produce what they call "pisco," and they're both distilling a spirit from grapes. However, they diverge on the specifics of production and various standards, yielding two distinctly different products. Call them what you will, but note the differences.

Chiefly, Chilean pisco does not need to be distilled to proof, and can also be distilled multiple times. As mentioned, Peruvian pisco is single distilled, and is distilled to proof. Chilean pisco can be aged in wood, Peruvian pisco cannot be, and Chilean pisco can be made with a range of 14 different grapes, as opposed to the eight of Peru. Finally, Chile grades its pisco by its proof. "Their regulation of Pisco is based on its alcoholic content," explains Schuler. "They have 30 degrees [percent], 35, 40 and 43, and their norm regulates the quality of pisco based on the amount of alcohol it has."

Legally, the U.S. TTB currently recognizes pisco as hailing from both Peru and Chile. So does the European Union, but while they accept pisco from Chile, they have also accepted Pisco, Peru as a unique geographical indicator that can be marketed as the origin of the spirit. Chile can sell spirit called pisco, but can't make that same geographical connection.

Meanwhile, in Chile, Peruvian piscos can't be labeled pisco, and the opposite holds true in Peru, where Chilean piscos can't be labeled pisco. Yet, the largest importer of Peruvian pisco, above the United States, is Chile.

Pisco Portón's Andy Valderrama mixes decidedly nontraditional pisco cocktails at Latin American food festival Mistura 2015 in Lima, Peru. Photo by Jake Emen.

How to Drink Pisco

Pisco can be consumed in basically any form or fashion. It can be sipped neat, as either an aperitif or digestif, used in a myriad of cocktails, or in the form of a maceradopisco infused with fruits and herbs. In Peru, house-made macerados can be found at nearly any restaurant and bar, and many homes.

For instance, at the Qespi Bar in the JW Marriott El Convento in Cusco, Peru, a popular stopping point en route to Machu Picchu, there are at least 20 house macerados available at any time. Sweeter offerings include strawberry, coconut, or passion fruit, while on the savory side, choices include coca leaves, ginger or chili peppers.

They use their macerados primarily for cocktails, as they're often too intensely flavored to be enjoyed neat. "They are flavored for cocktails," explains Qespi Bar bartender Alvaro Escobar. "They would be too heavy on their own." Closer to home, China Chilcano offers a dozen of their own macerados, focusing on seasonally available ingredients.

While the Pisco Sour made with pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white and bittersis the most well-known pisco cocktail, it's far from the only option. With its near infinite range of styles, pisco can be used in tandem with just about any ingredient, and as a sub for nearly any spirit. The El Capitan is essentially a Manhattan with pisco in place of whiskey. Two other classics include the Chilcano, pisco with ginger ale and lime juice, and the pisco punch, with pineapple and lime juice.

There's no need to be strict with any particular ingredients though. "You can only work with what you have in the bar," reminds Escobar. "So we will mix and match with what we have on the menu," he adds, noting that he often builds drinks based on what a customer wants, and the particular macerados and piscos they have on hand.

At an event earlier this summer in Manhattan, a handful of New York bartenders got together to show off the diversity of pisco in cocktails beyond the mainstays mentioned above. The unique collection included: Pisces Rising by Ivy Mix (Leyenda), with La Diablada from Macchu Pisco, Manzanilla sherry, peach liqueur, lemon, grapefruit, celery bitters and seltzer; the Santa Rosa from Meaghan Dorman (Dear Irving), with BarSol Italia pisco, Sorel, Cocci Rosa, lime juice and cherries; the Spruce Bringsteen by Darryl Chan (Cafe Boulud), with BarSol, yellow chartreuse, lemon juice, and spring spruce tips; the Miraflores by Nico de Soto (Mace), with Macchu Pisco, pandan-infused Pedro Ximenez sherry, Manzanilla sherry, coconut syrup and Amargo Chuncho bitters; and the Cuarto Vides by John McCarthy, with Pisco Portón, Cappelletti, Carpano Bianco, Verjus and seltzer.

Point being, just as with the flavors of pisco itself, the range of cocktails is endless. Perhaps most importantly of all, expect to enjoy yourself. "Every alcohol has its own buzz," says Asher. "There's something about pisco and pisco sours that gives you a nice chirpy, happy buzz." Escobar agrees, saying that a round or two of Pisco Sours before a night on the town will get the entire group ready to party.

Of course, the ever-enthusiastic Schuler can talk himself into a frenzy on the subject. "Pisco is for happiness, pisco is for joy, pisco is to enjoy life," he says. "There is passion, and there is love. Pisco is in our heart, I don't think any country has so much passion for a drink as our own. For good times and bad times, it's part of our lives, we couldn't live without it, honestly." Who isn't in the mood to enjoy some pisco right now after hearing that?


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