What is pisco?

In short, pisco is a South-American grape brandy originating in certain regions of Peru and Chile. The story of this unique spirit spans more than 400 years, from the planting of the first vineyards in the region to the rise of the ever-popular Pisco Sour.

These fresh, aromatic brandies are made in a similar way to Cognac, using fresh white wines and copper pot stills. But unlike Cognac, the vast majority come to market perfectly clear and un-aged. The broad range of grapes used to make pisco are also quite different to those grown in Cognac, and the varying growing conditions across the production areas make for a diverse spirit of great complexity and character.

How do I drink pisco?

All you really need to enjoy pisco is a tasting glass and some good friends to share it with, though its bright and fruity character makes it an excellent base for cocktails. In Chile, the Piscola – made with a healthy measure of pisco topped with cola – is a firm favourite, but the most famous drink internationally is by far the Pisco Sour.

The legendary Pisco Sour

Like rye whiskey and the Manhattan or gin and the Martini, pisco is inextricably linked to the Pisco Sour. This iconic drink helped to spread pisco around the world, offering a simple serve that showcases the unique characteristics of this one-of-a-kind spirit. Like all the best classic cocktails, it only requires a few ingredients and is easy to make at home.

Ingredients

  • 50ml Pisco
  • 25ml Fresh lime juice
  • 15ml Simple syrup
  • 1 Dash bitters
  • 1 Egg white

Directions

Put a cocktail coupe or sour glass into the freezer to get it nice and cold. Combine all ingredients in a shaker without ice and dry shake them to whip up that egg white. Add ice and shake hard. Strain through a fine strainer into your chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a few drops of bitters.

Once upon a time in Peru

The story of pisco

Spanish colonists planted grapes in what is now Peru in the mid-16th century, spreading viticulture through modern-day Argentina and Chile shortly after.

Among the settlers were distillers who had carried copper alembics with them from the old world. Though the date the first brandy was made in South America is unknown, we can assume it followed swiftly after the first Spanish vines took purchase in the shadow of the Andes.

Today, Peru and Chile both claim to be the birthplace of pisco as we know it. Each nation offers its own style of the traditional spirit and each government enforces different rules about how it should be made.

Pronounced ‘peace-co’

With two different nations laying claim to pisco’s origins it's not surprising that there are a few competing theories on where its name comes from. The truth of the matter is almost certainly lost to history but some of the most enduring explanations are:

A brief history of pisco

Peru vs Chile

The question of which nation owns the pisco category is hotly debated to this day. Many international markets, including the United States and the European Union, recognise pisco produced in both Chile and Peru. However, the two governments continue to compete over the rights to the name around the world.

Though the basics of each form of pisco are the same, both have a particular character. Peruvian pisco tends to be a little more rustic and funky – perfect for fans of mezcal or Armagnac – while Chilean pisco tends to be lighter and more refined – making a great alternative to gin or Tequila.

The key differences

Chile

  • May only be made using pot stills, but can be distilled multiple times
  • It is permissible to add water to standardise the proof of the pisco but no other additives are allowed
  • Producers in Chile have the option to age their spirits in cask. American and French oak is used, as is the native rauli tree

Peru

  • Distilled only once, using a copper pot still
  • Nothing can be added to the pisco after distillation, not even water
  • Fresh pisco must be rested for a minimum of three months in non-reactive vessels, typically made from glass or stainless steel. No oak ageing is permitted

The Grapes of Pisco

As the church advanced into South America, it brought vines from the old world, planting them by their missions to supply communion wine. Many of the grapes used in pisco production in Peru are varieties born locally but descended from those original Spanish cuttings.

Styles