. . . actually, on second thought, don’t. Stay right here, because there’s something you may not know: pisco is actually a type of brandy! But don’t be too surprised: any distillate of fruit juice is technically a brandy. While Cognac and other after-dinner drinks you may be more familiar with are aged in oak and sometimes colored with additives, pisco, on the other hand, isn’t either of these . . . at least not if it comes from Peru.
Peruvian pisco regulations stipulate that the spirit can’t be aged in wood at all and must rest for at least three months in a container that won’t alter its physical, chemical, or organic properties, with no additives that could alter its flavor, odor, appearance, or proof. Water isn’t even allowed at any step in the process—Peruvian pisco is made only from grapes, and nothing else! But, wait, why’d I specify Peruvian, you ask? Well, because Chilean pisco also exists! I’ll explain.
Pisco is considered the national spirit of both Peru and Chile, but it’s a different product in each country, made by vastly different means. Peruvian pisco in Chile is labeled “distilled grape alcohol” (aguardiente or destilado de uva), because Peru doesn’t meet Chile’s pisco requirements. And if you somehow manage to get Chilean pisco in Peru (it’s illegal to import), it wouldn’t meet Peru’s production requirements, either.
Peruvian pisco is distilled once in a copper pot to proof and is never diluted after distillation—it has to be bottled straight out of the still. In Chile, pisco can be distilled multiple times (but doesn’t need to be distilled to proof), and it can be aged in wood. But while multiple distillation makes for a “purer” product, repeated distilling tends to remove aroma and flavor, and raise the alcohol content. Chilean distillers lower pisco’s alcohol content by adding water.
So who has more of a right to name its spirit “pisco”? Peru has a pretty strong case, if I have to cast my vote. Pisco was first developed in the sixteenth century by Spanish settlers in winemaking regions of Peru, after all. And Peru argues that its pisco has a special relationship with the geographical area in which it’s produced (à la Champagne in France) and therefore deserves the name. Chile, however, says the term “pisco” is generic, simply indicating a type of alcoholic beverage made from grapes. But the word has Incan etymology (in Quechua, pisco means “small bird”), and the Incan center was in modern-day Peru. And, y’know, Pisco is also a coastal town in the Ica region of Peru. I’m not alone in my leanings: Peru currently exports three times more pisco than Chile and, funnily enough, Chile is the largest importer of Peruvian pisco.
Regardless of naming rights, pisco can range in its versatility. Its color varies from clear to amber depending on how it was made. And Chilean pisco has plenty of human intervention, so it can be controlled a bit more than its Peruvian counterpart.
Peruvian pisco hasn’t always been so readily available, though. It could be found worldwide from the 1800s to the middle of the twentieth century, including the swankiest bars across the US. Rudyard Kipling, winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in his opus “From Sea to Sea,” published in 1899: “Pisco . . . the noblest and most beautiful product of our era . . . I have the theory that it is composed of little cherub wings, the glory of a tropical sunrise, the red of sunset clouds and fragments of ancient epics written by the great fallen masters.”
It was even the toast of Hollywood for a time—John Wayne’s third wife, Pilar Pallete, was born in Peru, and he became quite the connoisseur of great hand-crafted pisco. But political turmoil in Peru in the 1960s and 70s negatively impacted production of the once ubiquitous spirit, causing its popularity to die down. It’s only just recently reentered the market in a big way—and is coming soon to a home bar near you via Shaker & Spoon’s Pisco Fever Box!
Like the flavors of pisco itself, the range of cocktails you can make with the spirit is endless and, depending on the particular type of pisco you’re working with, it has the potential to be enjoyed neat, mixed with soda, or within a more complicated cocktail.
You may already be familiar with the Pisco Sour, a foamy/sweet/sour combo of pisco, lemon juice, powdered sugar and sometimes egg whites and bitters. The modern version of that cocktail dates back to at least the 1920s, where it was served at the Morris Bar in Lima, but a Peruvian cookbook from 1903 includes an almost identical recipe that suggests it was around even before then, just with a different name. Its popularity has persisted: in 2003 Peru created National Pisco Sour Day, an official holiday celebrated annually on the first Saturday in February.
Pisco Punch, another well-known cocktail featuring the spirit, was made famous even earlier, in the late nineteenth century at the Bank Exchange Saloon in San Francisco. Owner Duncan Nicol invented the recipe that melded pisco, pineapple, lime and/or lemon juice, and simple syrup over ice. But he took the exact recipe to his grave after Prohibition closed the doors of his saloon.
As with many things, the best way to know what kind of pisco you like is simply to sample your options—Peruvians and Chileans agree: that’s a pretty good idea.