Pisco Is the South American Spirit You Should Be Using

Use it as an aperitif, or to add sweet, fruity flavor to cocktails.

What is Pisco

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For centuries, pisco has caused a debate: Is it Peruvian or Chilean? Both South American countries claim the brandy-like distilled wine as their national spirit, but they are producing entirely different versions. “Most of the pisco we see nowadays in the United States comes from Peru, despite the majority of the overall production being produced in Chile,” explains Sebastian Tollius, beverage director of Eleven Madison Park, who incorporates pisco in a variety of ways on the Michelin-starred restaurant’s seasonal cocktail lists. “Similar to how there has been a rise in mezcal, pisco is also becoming more popular — and you can see a lot of connections between the two spirits, since they’re driven by terroir and the varietal of grapes or agave, in the case of mezcal.”

This is a spirit meant to be sipped or stirred into cocktails. But if your knowledge of pisco starts and ends with the Pisco Sour, here’s what you need to know about the South American spirit. 

What is Pisco?

Pisco’s name and history is as muddled as its cultural identity. One story goes that in the 1600s, one of the last ports ships stopped to refuel was Pisco, in Peru’s Ica region, about four hours south of Lima. The spirit, called aquardiente de uva at the time, was exported from the port of Pisco, and later named after it. “Peruvian pisco, which was consumed a lot on the U.S. west coast at the time, was competing with whiskey — its history in America is quite old,” explains Lima-born Ricardo Zarate, chef, restaurateur, and author of the cookbook “The Fire of Peru,” adding that it was in San Francisco where Pisco Punch was invented.

Crafted from distilled grape juice, pisco is similar to grappa and cognac. “I wouldn’t say pisco is a brandy, because it’s not aged — it’s a white spirit,” notes Emanuele Balestra, bar manager of Bar du Fouquet's at Hotel Barrière Le Majestic in Cannes, France. “I’d call it an eau-de-vie.”

How is Pisco made?

Similar to Champagne, you can only call the spirit pisco if it’s made in one of Peru’s five coastal valley regions — Ica, Lima, Arequipa, Moquegua, or Tacna — or in Chile’s Copiapó, Huasco, Elqui, Limarí, or Choapa valleys. Both Peru and Chile call the spirit pisco in their respective countries, but once exported to the other, it’s renamed aguardiente, or firewater. 

Pisco falls into three categories: Puro, a single-grape varietal; Acholado, a blend of varietals; and Mosto Verde, a sweeter, lower-proof pisco that is distilled before the fermentation process finishes. “Mosto Verde is praised among producers and tasters as a product to drink on its own as a digestif, since it uses almost twice as many grapes as traditional pisco,” says Peruvian chef Diego Muñoz of POPULAR at the PUBLIC Hotel in New York.

Peruvian pisco — which is never aged in oak — can only be made from eight grape varieties: Quebranta, Mollar, Uvina, Negra Criolla, Moscatel, Italia, Albilla, and Torontel. It’s single-distilled and distilled to proof (between 38% to 48% ABV), which means producers can't add water after distillation like they would for other spirits, explains Lee Rosli, bar manager of Singapore’s Underdog Inn

Pisco must rest for a minimum of three months in a nonreactive container. Producers used to use elongated clay pitchers known as botijas (or more informally as piscos), but most now use stainless steel or glass. “By law, pisco bottles cannot carry an age statement (months or years) or a certain vintage, however, as with wine, different harvests can produce different results,” says Rosli.

Chile’s rules are a bit looser: pisco can be aged in oak barrels (typically American, French, or Chilean raulí wood), use up to 14 different types of grapes, and be distilled multiple times. “Some distillers will add the must or fermented must to change the complexity of the spirit,” explains Mitch Mandujano, bar manager of Basque-inspired Ernesto's in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “And both countries use copper pot stills during the distillation process, but Chile strays off using other boutique-style methods.”

What does Pisco taste like?

Pisco differs depending on the type of grape used, but the dominant notes are aromatically floral and herbaceous. The non-aromatic Peruvian Quebranta grape — the original Pisco variety and most widely used in pisco production today — is complex, and the taste is often compared to grappa. 

“Many producers are distilling single-varietal spirits and Mosto Verdes to showcase the flavors in different aromatic grapes, such as Italia and Torontel, and are incredibly complex sipping spirits,” says Bryan Schneider, bar director at Quality Branded, who won Pisco 1615’s cocktail challenge with a variation of an Old Fashioned. “I think I surprised the judges because pisco is usually associated with tropical or citrus flavors, but showcasing the right single-varietal spirit in a simple aromatic cocktail like an Old Fashioned is an interesting way to highlight those unique flavors.”

How to drink Pisco

Pisco is versatile enough to be an aperitif, as it’s commonly enjoyed in Peru, but it can also be paired with seafood or tapas. It’s a delicate spirit, so if you’re having it neat, it’s meant to be sipped, not downed as a shot. “What I love about using pisco over other spirits is how flavors that come through are more reminiscent of wine, with notes of mango, papaya, grass, hay, and, even at times, must or morning dew,” says Gabriel Maldonado, beverage director of The Wesley in New York City. “At its best, you can also have it neat, and I typically lean toward Moste Verde to sip on.”

How to store Pisco

“Pisco can be stored for a long time, as long as you make sure it’s not getting any direct sunlight,” says Peruvian chef Antonio Aspilcueta, of Uchu at Cap Juluca, A Belmond Hotel, Anguilla. Store pisco the same way you would any spirit, at room temperature, or in the freezer — which many bartenders and chefs say they prefer, especially if sipping it neat. 

Best Pisco cocktails

“Here in the U.S., everyone knows pisco because of the Pisco Sour, but in Peru, it seems the locals left Pisco Sours to the tourists,” says Schneider. “The local drink in Lima is the Chilcano, which is a simple highball with pisco, ginger ale, and angostura bitters, but every bar has their own version or versions, infusing other fruits and flavors into the mix.”  

Pisco can be a great base for cocktails — even outside the traditional, whipped egg white-topped Pisco Sour or Chilcano — and works well in classic cocktails by subbing out clear rum, vodka, or tequila. A few favorites: Pisco Alexander, a riff on a Brandy Alexander with crème de cacao and cream; a Pisco Smash, mixed with muddled grapes and Riesling; a fruity Pisco Cup, shaken with ice, ruby port, and orange bitters; or Cola de Mono, a play on a White Russian with milk and winter spices. “I’m looking at classic drinks and taking inspiration from their templates,” says Tollius, adding that a simple Pisco Sour can be a great starting point. “When you can make new drinks showcasing a spirit in different ways, people find a spirit like pisco to be more approachable.”

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