Pisco is a potent South American brandy with a storied history and a passionate following. Both Peru and Chile export Pisco, and both countries claim to be the original producers of the liqueur.
Pisco is made from only certain varieties of grapes, which are fermented and distilled into a potent "aguardiente." It is the essential ingredient in the famous pisco sour and is even celebrated with a national Pisco Sour Day (Dia del Pisco Sour) in Peru.
The Spanish conquistadores brought grape vines to South America to make wine for their own consumption and export. The story goes that pisco came into being as a way to use leftover grapes that were undesirable for wine making. Pisco is technically a brandy, made by distilling fermented grape juice.
How this unusual brandy got its name is in dispute. Some say that the word "pisco" comes from the Quechuan word "pisqu," which was the name of a bird found in the Ica valley region of Peru. It might be named after the town of Pisco, a port city near Peru's Nazca Lines from which pisco was shipped to Lima. The name is also said to come from the large pre-Columbian clay pots, called piscos, that are used to ferment the grapes.
Pisco has been produced in Chile for hundreds of years as well -- these regions were once all part of the same Spanish viceroyalty. The vigorous dispute about whether pisco belongs to Chile or Peru continues to this day.
Pisco is made from specific varieties of grapes grown in designated regions of Peru and Chile. The grapes are fermented into wine, then distilled. The resulting liqueur is briefly aged, then bottled. In Peru, pisco is never diluted, according to the very strict, specified rules governing its production. In Chile, pisco is sometimes mixed with distilled water to reach the desired alcohol content.
Types of Pisco
There are four categories of pisco, made from seven varieties of grapes. Pisco puro is made only from black, non-aromatic grapes, usually the quebranta variety. These were the original grapes brought over from Spain, which supposedly changed and adapted to their new environment, resulting in a unique taste. Pisco aromatico is made from one of four more fruity and aromatic varieties: muscatel, Italia, albilla, and torontel. Pisco acholado is made from a blend of a non-aromatic grape and one or more of the aromatic varieties. Pisco mosto verde is made from partially fermented grapes. Pisco puro and pisco acholado are the varieties most often used to make pisco sours.
Pisco is a key ingredient in several interesting cocktails. Although pisco has a high alcohol content (ranging from 60 to 100 proof), it tastes very smooth, and many people enjoy drinking it neat. Pisco has been known to surprise first-timers with its potency, especially when blended into a cocktail. Pisco sours are notoriously quite strong.
Lima takes the credit for the first pisco sour. Its inventor is said to have been a North American bartender, Victor Morris -- called "Gringo Morris" -- in the 1920s, who owned The Morris Bar, near the heart of the city off the Plaza de Armas.
Besides pisco, the key ingredients for a great pisco sour are pisco, very tart key limes, an egg white and angostura bitters. The classic preparation is shaken over ice, but it's also made "frozen" in a blender with crushed ice. When a pisco sour is poured into a glass (usually an old-fashioned cocktail glass), the egg white should make at least a half inch of foam on the top of the glass. The bitters are sprinkled on top of the foam.
There are many other classic pisco cocktails:
- The algarrobina, a creamy cocktail made with algarrobina syrup and condensed milk
- The chilcano (pisco and ginger ale)
- The Chilean Christmas cocktail cola de mono ("monkey's tail").
Trendy new pisco cocktails are still being invented, and many make use of the exotic tropical fruits available in South America. Maracuya sours are made with passion fruit juice, and the popular aguaymanto sour is made with a tomatillo-like fruit. Mango sours are deliciously refreshing.