What Is Pisco?
Pisco is a type of brandy, which means that it is produced by distilling wine as you’ll learn later in this guide. It’s believed to have originated in South America towards the end of the 16th century when Spanish settlers sought an alternative to their native orujo, a pomace brandy similar to grappa.
Pisco isn’t dissimilar to cognac and Armagnac, which are perhaps the most famous types of brandy. However, this guide will help you discover its unique identity and characteristics.
Today, pisco is primarily made in Peru and Chile but the rights to use the appellation is still hotly debated. Its name is presumed to derive from an eponymous 16th-century harbour in the Peruvian town, Santa Maria Magdalena.
This port was often used for distributing aguardiente, a generic Spanish term for distilled spirits similar to the French “eau-de-vie” and German “schnaps“. However, linguists have argued that its etymological roots may actually be found in the region’s native languages.
There have been suggestions that it comes from the Quechuan word for “bird” or even “pishku”, a Mapudungun expression for boiling something in a pot, as well as a term for an amphora-style clay jar. Meanwhile, “pisto” is a generic Mexican expression for distilled spirits.
In 1595, the Spanish monarchy outlawed new vineyards in its American colonies in order to protect its native wine industry. In fact, it was this policy that encouraged the distillation of other ingredients and eventually led to the production of tequila.
Nevertheless, the law was often ignored in most territories as certain regions in both Peru and Chile offered excellent conditions for vineyards.
Similar to both cognac and Armagnac, pisco was initially used as a generic aguardiente to fortify wine so that it wouldn’t spoil by oxidation when shipped. After all, fortifying wines for transport was already a common process in both the Spanish Jerez Valley and the Portuguese island of Madeira.
By 1615, the Spanish Crown had outlawed Panama and Guatemala from importing Peruvian wine after realising that the colony continued to commercially produce wine.
Earthquakes, Persecutions & Civil War
Pisco Clay Pots
In 1687, Peru was struck by a devastating earthquake that levelled its cities such as Ica and Villa de Pisco. Since the wine was often stored in clay amphora pots, many of these were crushed by cellars that had collapsed.
Nevertheless, pisco production continued to flourish and eventually overtook wine. However, many vineyard owners and producers were Jesuits and fell victim to a wave of suppression in the late 18th century.
Their land and equipment were then auctioned and bought by inexperienced winemakers, resulting in a drop in both volume and quality. Meanwhile, the Spanish Crown lifted bans on producing rum, inciting some distillers to convert as it was cheaper to make.
Nevertheless, pisco had become quite popular in the USA by the 19th century, especially around California during the Gold Rush. Yet, increasing European demands for cotton, particularly during the American Civil War, prompted winegrowers to change their industry.
On the 15th May 1931, the Chilean government established its Denominations of Origin for pisco. Meanwhile, Peru didn’t outline its official Denominations of Origin until 1991.
Where Is Pisco Made?
As mentioned above, Peru and Chile may often argue where pisco truly originated despite both countries having produced it for centuries.
The debate usually focuses on where it was first produced rather than when their appellations were officially outlined. After all, its production easily predates the official government regulations.
Indeed, the earliest record of the brandy is a 1613 Peruvian document where a man called Pedro Manuel El Griego mentions his distilling equipment in his will. Yet, it referred to aguardiente rather than pisco.
Meanwhile, a 1733 Chilean inventory of a hacienda called La Torre does specifically detail three clay pisco pots. Nevertheless, these documented references don’t necessarily rule out that the beverage was produced elsewhere at the time of their writing.
Otherwise, Chile and Peru are the only countries that produce pisco. Chile is sometimes regarded as something of an underdog, especially given that both the USA and European Union allow imports of both but only formally recognise Peru’s use of the name.
Despite their quarrels, Peru and Chile have signed an agreement, which prohibits the use of geographical designation in their branding. Therefore, producers cannot officially refer to their products as either Peruvian or Chilean pisco.
Peruvian Pisco Terroirs
According to Peru’s denomination of origin, its pisco can only be made in five regions surrounding the following cities:
Each location is located along the Pacific coast with Lima the furthest to the north while Tacna is the most southern. Additionally, Tacna regional production is limited to only the Locumba Locumba, Sama, and Caplina valleys rather than the whole area.
Chilean Pisco Regions
Unlike Peruvian pisco, which is spread over five different areas, Chilean pisco can only be made in the following two regions:
Both areas are more or less in central Chili and can be found north of Santiago.
What Is Pisco Made From?
As you will have not learned, pisco is produced from wine, which is itself essentially fermented grape juice. On some occasions, pisco is also produced from the partially fermented must left over after the grapes were pressed.
In this section of the guide, we will explore the different grape varieties used to make pisco. You may notice that many of them are varieties of muscat (“moscatel” in Spanish or “moscato” in Italian) or are even the result of crossing muscat with other grapes.
Pisco grapes are typically grouped between aromatic and non-aromatic varieties. Aromatic varieties are usually white grapes that produce intense aromas and flavour.
It is often presumed aromatic pisco grapes are only those with DNA from the muscat family. However, this belief isn’t strictly true given that even some non-aromatic grapes also have muscat ancestors!
Chilean Pisco Grape Varieties
Chilean pisco is producing using only one non-aromatic red grape and four white aromatic varieties:
- Moscatel de Alejandria: An ancient aromatic variety and one of the oldest still in existence.
- Moscatel de Austria: An aromatic white grape also confusingly known as torrontés.
- Moscatel Rosada: A pinkish grape that still offers aromatic qualities.
- Torontel: Aromatic grape also known as moscatel amarillo not to be confused with torrontés.
- Pedro Ximénez: A non-aromatic grape best known for its use in sherry wine.
As you may have noticed, torrontés and torontel appear to have very similar names. Indeed, while they are related, they are separate crossings of the same parents. For this reason, torrontés often goes by “moscatel de Austria” for pisco production.
Peruvian Pisco Grape Varieties
As you will now learn, Peru has a greater range of non-aromatic red grape varieties compared to Chile. These consist of the following:
- Quebranta: The most popular non-aromatic red grape is actually a crossing of mollar and negra criolla.
- Negra Criolla: This non-aromatic red grape is a parent of quebranta but still used to make pisco.
- Mollar: Like Negra Criolla, mollar is still used despite being the parent of the more successful non-aromatic grape.
- Uvina: One of the two non-aromatic red grapes with no connection to moscatel.
- Albilla: The second non-aromatic red grape that’s unrelated to moscatel.
- Moscatel: Although rarely mentioned, Peruvian moscatel is of the “grano menudo” variety.
- Torontel: The same moscatel amarillo used in Chile.
- Italia: A white aromatic grape produced by crossing muscat Hamburg and Bican in 1911.
Despite similar production methods, you may now have realised that Peru and Chile actually use completely different grapes to produce their pisco. While both feature types of muscat, they’re different strains. Indeed, the only grape that they have in common is Torontel!
Types Of Pisco
Peruvian and Chilean pisco are classed using very different considerations. While Peruvian pisco is categorised by its blend of different grape varieties, Chilean pisco instead focuses on its alcoholic strength.
Peruvian Pisco Classifications
As mentioned above, Peruvian pisco classifications are based on the ingredients and grape varieties used to produce it:
- Puro: Single-grape pisco made from only one variety.
- Aromáticas: Single-grape pisco made only from aromatic varieties.
- Mosto Verde: pisco made from partially fermented grape must like Italian grappa pomace brandy.
- Acholado: A blend of two grape varieties or more.
Chilean Pisco Classifications
Unlike Peruvian varieties, Chilean pisco can be distilled several times and hydrated with water. Therefore, a scale has been created to classify its quality:
- Correiente or Tradicional: 30% – 35 ABV
- Especial: 35% – 40% ABV
- Reservado: 40%
- Gran Pisco: 43% ABV or more
How Is Pisco Made?
A distinguishing feature of some Peruvian and Chilean vineyards is their height. Like on the island of Madeira, the vines are grown to be tall so the fruit hangs overhead like a canopy. This approach helps protect the vines from exposure to fungal disease due to the heavy rainfall and humid tropical weather.
Once harvested, the grapes are pressed, which is often undertaken manually rather than by using machines. Winemakers will work in teams where they spread out and carefully stomp on the grapes, ensuring that the skins are properly macerated and pressed down.
Certain techniques are used such as linking arms and working together to ensure that the grapes are all crushed. This process often takes place in the afternoon in order to avoid the South American dry heat.
Six intervals are often required to fully press the grapes and the resulting juice is then left to macerate for around 24 hours depending on the variety. Once ready, the juice is transferred to vats where it is fermented for about a week.
Natural yeasts are used to ferment the juice into wine and temperature control is used to prevent overheating. Not only would too much heat potentially kill the yeast and prevent a full fermentation but it may case the aromas to evaporate.
How Pisco Is Distilled
Firstly, both countries typically produce the distillate using alembic copper pot stills. In Peru, the use of a copper pot still is a legal requirement whereas it’s somewhat more relaxed in Chili even if other types of still are rare.
Similarly, Peruvian pisco can only be produced from a single still run where the heads and tails are discarded. High-quality Chilean pisco will usually follow the same process, but they may be distilled several times. Continuous column stills are very rare in Chili even if they may be permitted.
In most cases, the procedure takes place in batches given the use of copper pot stills.
Each grape variety is usually fermented and distilled separately. During the ageing process, it may be blended to create an Acholado pisco if desired.
Peruvian pisco must be aged for a minimum of three months in neutral vessels such as glass or stainless steel. Regulations forbid the use of any materials that alter its physical, chemical or organic properties such as wooden casks.
However, the Chilean ageing process isn’t as strict and allows producers to experiment with different techniques. As a result, Chilean pisco is sometimes aged in American oak, French oak, or even a native beechwood call Rauli.
Unfortunately, Chilean pisco producers may also use colourings to modify the colour and taste. This practice is totally prohibited in Peru. As explained above, Chilean pisco can be hydrated after it has been aged whereas Peruvian pisco must have been distilled to the desired alcoholic strength.
What Does Pisco Taste Like?
Despite being a distilled alcoholic spirit, pisco is particularly expressive. Given the variety of terroirs, grape varieties, and permitted ageing processes, pisco can greatly differ in flavour.
Generally speaking, high-quality pisco is very smooth even if it hasn’t been aged and usually displays characteristic vinous notes that are reminiscent of grapes. It may feature fruity and floral notes as well as hints of earth.
In this case of Mosto Verde pisco, it usually has a slightly herbaceous flavour that’s somewhat similar to grappa. Meanwhile, pisco produced from aromatic varieties tends to be livelier while non-aromatic grapes can be subtler in its complexity.
Finally, Chilean pisco aged in wooden barrels will often develop nuanced flavours that are quite similar to those found in cognac. However, it is rarely aged for as long.
How To Drink Pisco
There are few traditions that dictate how to consume pisco. Most countries usually have rituals and rules involving the glassware or when to have their national drink. However, pisco is somewhat more laidback.
Although pisco is sometimes enjoyed neat, how it’s drunk usually depends on the quality of the spirit. Lower-quality pisco may be used to make a “mistella” where it is mixed with unfermented grape juice to prevent it from spoiling.
Similarly, it may be macerated with fruit, herbs, and spices. This practice is known as a “macerado” and some areas at high altitudes will make concoctions with coca leaf to help prevent symptoms of elevation sickness.
Nevertheless, the use of pisco in cocktails is not just popular in Peru, but abroad, too. Indeed, the Pisco Sour is probably one of the most iconic drinks, which is a staple in both South America and the USA. Discover how to make it and our other recommendations with our guide to the best pisco cocktails.
Similar Drinks & Pisco Substitutes
As pisco is a brandy, there are several possible alternatives that you can consider. Firstly, Italian grappa is Mosto Verde pisco’s closest relative and offers similar herbaceous flavours. Since this type of pisco is often made in Peru, it won’t be aged. Therefore, consider a grappa bianca rather than an aged expression.
Otherwise, a substitute for Peruvian pisco is best found in unaged brandy. Cognac must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels.
However, Armagnac recently approved the production of the unaged “blanche d’armagnac”. Similarly, you can seek out other French eaux-de-vie that are made from wine or other fruit, which will have similar characteristics.
Meanwhile, if you’re more interested in aged brandy similar to Chilean products, cognac is a great choice. Alternatively, you can also consider calvados, which is an apple cider brandy. For more suggestions, head to our brandy homepage.
Finally, if you’d prefer something that’s geographically closer, Latin American has many types of aguardiente, but tequila is a classic choice.
Pisco Health Benefits
An often perpetuated belief since the Middle Ages is that distilled alcoholic spirits were medicinal remedies. Indeed, it was often the subject of discussion among Medieval monks and doctors.
While alcohol rarely offers as many health benefits as we’d like, pisco and other brandy can provide some perks in moderation. For instance, brandy may feature sufficient antioxidants to improve heart and blood circulation as well as protect against either gallstones or type 2 diabetes.
Similarly, it is occasionally suggested that it contains a bioactive polyphenol called resveratrol, which can slow ageing. Otherwise, alcohol and brandy are known diuretic and help digestation.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Pisco
Being a brandy, pisco is safe to drink if you’re sensitive to gluten or suffer from Celiac’s disease. Meanwhile, it’s rather light in calories with only 85 being present in a single 30 ml (1 Oz) shot. Similarly, it contains just 3 grams of carbs.
Of course, be mindful of the other ingredients if you’re having it as part of a cocktail!
Now that you have read our full pisco guide, discover more of our related resources!