What’s the Deal with Pisco?

By Carey Jones and John D. McCarthy |

© Carey Jones

Want to start a fight between a Peruvian and a Chilean? Tell them that the other country makes better pisco. The national spirit of both nations, pisco has hotly disputed origins with each dismissing the other’s pisco as a cheap imitation.

We don’t want to pick sides in an international dispute, but there are currently many more Peruvian piscos found in the United States, including the excellent Pisco Porton, which we're using here. Pisco is a grape brandy, meaning that it's made from grapes that are fermented and then distilled. Unlike the French brandies Cognac and Armagnac, most pisco doesn't spend any time in a barrel, so it's a clear spirit, not a brown one.

The classic cocktail is a pisco sour—and we've got a recipe for you below—but pisco mixes well with all manner of ingredients, particularly anything grape-based (like vermouth). Check out these three recipes and you'll understand why pisco is so beloved in its native lands.

Easy: Pisco Martini

Pisco's a white spirit that performs very well in a martini. Floral, fragrant Carpano Bianco is our vermouth of choice here, matching the floral notes of the pisco.

Instructions: In a mixing glass with ice, combine 2 ounces of pisco and 1 ounce of Carpano Bianco vermouth with 1/4 ounce of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and hot water). Add 1 dash of orange bitters. Stir until well-chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a big twist of lemon peel—twisting over the surface of the drink to spray its citrus oils all over.

Intermediate: Pisco Thyme

Grapes are obviously a natural partner for pisco; thyme is the unexpected addition here, adding an herbal element against the grapes' sweetness and acidity. 

Instructions: In the bottom of a cocktail shaker, muddle 5 green grapes. Add ice plus 1.5 ounces pisco, 1/2 ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and 1/2 ounce of simple syrup. Drop in a thyme sprig, shake and double-strain (through your cocktail strainer, and a fine mesh strainer) into a tall glass with fresh ice. Add 1 ounce of club soda. Garnish with thyme and a few grapes.

Advanced: Pisco Sour

A classic cocktail in both Chile and Peru. South American limes have a different taste than the ones we get here, so we're using both lemon and lime juice to approximate an authentic flavor. Don't be afraid of the egg white here; it gives the finished drink a pleasant, silky texture and beautiful head.

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker without ice, combine 2 ounces pisco, 1/2 ounce of lemon juice and 1/2 ounce of lime, and 3/4 ounce simple syrup. Add 1 egg white. Shake all that up hard without ice (that's called a "dry shake"). Add ice and shake again (the "wet shake"). Strain into a coupe. Garnish with a few drops of Angostura. 

Related: The Best Places in the World to Travel if You're on a Budget When in Peru, Get Your Pisco Sour Laced with Coca 7 Frothy Cocktails to Drink Today