bottle and glass of pisco

Recollections of my recent trip to South America bring to mind pisco, the renowned spirit of Peru and Chile. For a refresher on spirits and the distillation process, you can refer to my article Introduction to Spirits. An overview of South American viniculture is also available here.

Pisco is a type of brandy produced by both Chile and Peru, and it has been the subject of international disputes between these two countries.

In South America, viticulture began with Spanish colonists and their grapes in the mid-16th century. The continent boasts numerous regions conducive to winemaking, and with the experience brought by many colonists, winemaking began to thrive.

Peru’s wine production quickly reached such a scale that it began exporting wine back to Spain, prompting protests from Spanish wine sellers and attempts by the Crown to halt the exports.

However, the desire for spirits persisted. Imported brandy from Spain was prohibitively expensive, and only a few could afford it. Consequently, by the end of the 16th century, Peru began producing its own brandy, known as pisco.

The term “pisco” originates from the Quechua language, where it means “bird.” However, its connection to the drink’s name isn’t entirely clear. It is highly likely that it derived from the town of Pisco, situated along the Pisco River in the Pisco Valley. During that era, Pisco was the largest Peruvian port and the hub of all Peruvian overseas trade, including alcohol. Hence, the name of the drink may have been derived from the town’s name. Another theory suggests that the drink was named after “piscos,” clay vessels used by indigenous people for their traditional corn brew, which were initially utilized for storing pisco.

Initially, pisco was primarily used for fortifying wine, but later gained popularity as a standalone spirit.

In the 19th century, Chileans had the opportunity to taste and appreciate Peruvian pisco. They began purchasing it extensively and subsequently started producing their own spirit, which was very similar but not identical, under the same name. Since then, both countries have engaged in a longstanding dispute over declaring pisco as their national spirit. Chile contends that pisco is the national spirit of Chile, while Peru argues for pisco as the national spirit of Peru.

What is pisco, how it is made, and what is the difference between Peruvian and Chilean pisco?

Pisco is a type of brandy made by distilling grape wine. Unlike other well-known brandies such as Cognac, Armagnac, and Jerez brandy, which require maturation in oak barrels, pisco can skip this step. In fact, for Peruvian pisco, this step is prohibited by law. This makes pisco a relatively young brandy ideologically.

The difference in production methods stems from the characteristics of the grapes used. For instance, Cognac is made from wine with very high acidity, making it almost undrinkable immediately after distillation. Therefore, extensive aging in oak barrels is necessary to balance and smooth the spirit. In contrast, pisco is made from grapes with low acidity and high sugar content, resulting in a smooth and aromatic product without the need for prolonged aging.

Peruvian pisco

Pisco falls under the category of Denomination of Origin (DO) and can only be produced in five seaside regions: Ica, Lima, Arequipa, Moquegua, and Tacna. These regions have a climate conducive to grape cultivation, resulting in grapes with high sugar content during ripening.

Currently, only eight grape varieties of Spanish origin are permitted for pisco production. These include four non-aromatic varieties: Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Uvina, and Mollar, as well as four aromatic varieties: Moscatel, Torontel, Italia, and Albilla. Among these, Quebranta grape accounts for 80% of all pisco production.

The wine used for making pisco is produced using white wine technology. Grapes are pressed immediately after harvest, without the inclusion of skins and seeds.

The high concentration of grape sugar is crucial for Peruvian pisco production. According to the law, pisco can only be distilled once, in a copper pot, and the resulting spirit must have an alcohol content of 38-48% ABV. There is no allowance for dilution with water, so the distillation process must yield a product with the desired alcohol content and flavor profile from the outset.

Following distillation, Peruvian pisco must be aged for a minimum of three months in neutral vessels such as glass, stainless steel, or clay. Many top producers opt to extend this aging period to one year, which helps to soften and balance the flavor profile of the spirit.

No additives that could alter the taste are permitted to be added to pisco, ensuring the purity and authenticity of the final product.

In Peru, there are four main types of pisco:

Puro – This is the most popular type in Peru, made from a single non-aromatic grape variety, typically Quebranta. The wine used for distillation must be completely dry.

Aromáticas – Similar to Puro, but made from aromatic grape varieties, usually Muscat.

Mosto Verde – In contrast to the previous types, the wine for Mosto Verde should be sweet and not completely fermented. This requires more grapes per liter, additional work, and results in a more expensive final product.

Acholado – This is a blend of two or more types of pisco, such as Puro with Puro or Mosto Verde with Mosto Verde.

Peru boasts around 650 distilleries, with fewer than 500 of them holding legal registration. Approximately ten distilleries produce high-quality products in significant quantities, while another dozen operate on an intermediate scale. The remaining distilleries are small farmers’ operations that produce pisco for their local communities.

Chilean pisco

Chilean pisco production spans two Denomination of Origin (DO) regions: Atacama and Coquimbo. Both regions are desert regions, with Coquimbo being a high-altitude desert located on the edge of the Atacama Desert. In Coquimbo, the main grape used for pisco production, Muscat Alexandria, is gradually being replaced by vineyards that produce some of the best wines in Chile. These vineyards are among the highest-altitude vineyards globally, reaching up to 3500 meters. Witnessing the vineyards in Copiapo, Atacama, I was amazed at how grapes can thrive in such arid conditions, despite the use of irrigation.

Chilean pisco can be produced using 14 grape varieties, with the most popular being Pais, Muscat, Torontel, and Pedro Jiménez. The wine for Chilean pisco can be fermented using both white and red wine technologies.

Distillation can be carried out once or twice, and the pot material can be copper or other materials. The resulting product has a higher alcohol content, reaching up to 80% abv, which is then diluted with water to achieve the desired concentration.

The type of Chilean pisco is determined solely by its alcohol concentration:

Corriente or Tradicional – 30% – 35%

Especial – 35% – 40%

Reservado – 40%

Superior or Gran – 43% and higher

Unlike Peruvian pisco, Chilean pisco has the option (but not the requirement) to undergo aging in oak barrels.

Pisco that spends between 180 days to one year in a barrel can be classified as aged. Additional aging beyond one year is also possible, with some piscos aged up to 30 years. Oak barrels can be sourced from Europe or America, with sizes ranging from 225 to 500 liters. Generally, longer aging periods are associated with larger barrels. Consequently, the taste profile of Chilean pisco varies significantly based on the aging process. Non-aged or lightly aged piscos exhibit similarities with Peruvian pisco, featuring light aromas of flowers and fruits. In contrast, piscos subjected to extensive aging resemble cognac more closely.

I have here a bottle of young Chilean pisco, specifically Capel Pisco Premium Reservado from the Elqui Valley in the DO Coquimbo region. This pisco comes from vineyards situated at a lofty altitude of 2000 meters. It’s made primarily from 30% Muscat blended with 70% Pedro-Jimenez and Torontel. Double distillation. 40% abv. From 4 to 6 months in neutral oak.

This pisco boasts a very soft and gentle character, complemented by herbaceous and fruity aromas, along with subtle notes of black pepper.

Peru produces approximately 10 million liters of pisco each year, while Chile imports over 30% of Peruvian pisco. Interestingly, Chile produces three times more pisco than Peru but exports only half as much. Clearly, Chileans have a fondness for pisco, consuming an average of 3 liters per capita annually.

The USA ranks as the second-largest importer of Peruvian pisco after Chile. Leading the market in the USA is Pisco Portón, followed by Macchu Pisco. Chilean pisco also maintains a presence in the US market. Both the USA and the EU, which import pisco from both countries, recognize products from Peru and Chile as authentic pisco.

Pisco can be enjoyed neat or as an ingredient in various cocktails, offering versatility and flavor to mixology enthusiasts and connoisseurs alike.

About some of them you can find here:

Pisco Sour, the most popular cocktail on the pisco base
My own inventions Glacier Sanest and Glacier Sunrise
Andean Dusk

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