Pisco is a South American brandy distilled from fermented grape juice using specific grape varietals. It has been produced exclusively in Peru and Chile for centuries. Both countries lay claim to pisco's origins and adhere to regulations that produce distinct styles. The taste varies, ranging from a semi-sweet to dry eau-de-vie. While it's most famous for the pisco sour cocktail, increased distribution worldwide has given pisco a new spotlight among distilled spirits.
- Ingredients: grapes
- Proof: 60–100
- ABV: 30–50%
- Calories in a shot: 60
- Origin: Chile, Peru
- Taste: semi-sweet, aromatic, burnt wine
- Aged: unaged (Peru); unaged or aged up to 6 years (Chile)
- Serve: neat, cocktails
Pisco vs. Grappa
Pisco and grappa are two styles of brandy distilled from grapes. Pisco is a South American product introduced by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. Grappa is an Italian liquor dating to around the 13th century. Grappa is often clear like Peruvian pisco, but may also be barrel-aged, similar to Chilean pisco.
The biggest distinction is in the grape distillate. Grappa is made with the pomace (the skins, seeds, and stalks) leftover from wine production. Pisco uses fermented grape juice from which the pomace is discarded. Grappa is known to have a strong burn and taste like sour plums. Pisco tastes more like a rustic brandy that's surprisingly smooth.
What Is Pisco Made From?
Peru makes the most pisco, and Peru and Chile have different regulations regarding its production. For both, the grapes are juiced, then fermented for a few weeks. The resulting wine is then distilled in copper pot stills, vaporizing the liquid and condensing it into a high-alcohol liquor.
In Peru, pisco must be made from eight grape varietals, and it can only be distilled once. The pisco cannot be diluted or include any additives, nor is it barrel-aged. Instead, it must rest for at least three months in stainless steel or glass containers. Traditionally, long clay jars called botijas were used for both fermentation and resting.
Chilean pisco regulations are a bit more relaxed, but can only use three grape varietals. It may go through multiple distillations and diluted with water to bottling strength. Aging is allowed and produces a transparent amber liquor. Most often, American or French oak or native rauli beech barrels are used.
What Does Pisco Taste Like?
The taste of pisco varies greatly. Like brandy, it's reminiscent of "burnt" wine. The aroma tends to be stronger than the taste. Well-made pisco is surprisingly smooth, and low-quality pisco is described as funky or musty. It's either semi-sweet or dry, with grape flavor notes, along with herbal, earthy notes comparable to tequila. Chilean pisco is often more floral.
There are four types of pisco, distinguished by the grapes used. Distilleries may produce multiple types and it's typically noted on the label.
- Pisco Puro: A single-varietal style made only from non-aromatic grapes. Most often, it is the Quebranta grape, which was the original variety introduced from Spain.
- Pisco Aromatico: Made from Muscatel, Italia, Albilla, or Torontel grapes, which are fruitier and more aromatic.
- Pisco Acholado: A blend of non-aromatic grapes (often Quebranta) and one or more of the aromatic varieties.
- Pisco Mosto Verde: This style is distilled from partially fermented grapes, so fermentation is stopped before all of the sugar is converted into alcohol. This results in a sweeter spirit.
Where to Buy Pisco
Pisco exports are growing, making a wider range of brands available to the international market. Look for it at well-stocked liquor stores where it's typically found among other brandies. If alcohol shipping is available in your location, a number of online liquor stores carry a variety of pisco brands.
How to Drink Pisco
Pisco is often enjoyed neat. Shots are customarily poured then sipped slowly. Pisco's potency can catch drinkers by surprise because it's so smooth. Pisco mosto verde is commonly drunk before dinner as an aperitif and any pisco drink is an excellent pairing for seafood.
The classic pisco sour was invented by a North American bartender, Victor "Gringo" Morris, in the 1920s at his bar in Lima's Plaza de Armas. Traditionally, it's a shaken drink of pisco puro or acholado, key lime juice, and egg white, with dashes of Angostura bitters in the foam. The Chilean version doesn't include an egg, and blending it with ice is popular as well.
Pisco is versatile and often paired with tropical South American fruits. Other traditional drinks include the algarrobina, made with algarrobo fruit syrup and condensed milk, and a Chilean Christmas cocktail called cola de mono ("monkey's tail"). Pisco is also excellent when topped with ginger ale, ginger beer, or sparkling wine. Adding a shot of pisco to hot coffee with a splash of milk is tasty, too.
Pisco is found in a variety of traditional and modern cocktail recipes that showcase the spirit's full potential.
The majority of pisco remains exclusive to South America. A number of brands are finding markets throughout the world as the spirit's popularity increases.
- Aba Pisco (Chile)
- Barsol Pisco (Peru)
- Campo de Encanto Pisco (Peru)
- Kappa Pisco (Chile)
- Pisco El Gobernador (Chile)
- Pisco Portón (Peru)
- Tabanero Pisco (Peru)
- Waqar Pisco (Chile)
Cooking With Pisco
Pisco makes an interesting addition to sauces, candies, and cakes, including Chilean pan de pascua, a favorite holiday fruitcake. It can also be used in many recipes that call for either brandy or rum.