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Intro to Pisco: Grapes, Rivalry & Cocktails

What is Pisco, where’s it from and how should you drink it? These are some of the topics of debate between Peru and Chile, both of which lay claim to Pisco as their national drink. We take a brief look at the history of pisco and how it is used today.

Pisco is the national drink of two countries, both Peru and Chile and it’s origin and true nationality is a source of much heated bickering between the two neighbouring countries.

WHAT IS PISCO?

Pisco is a South American brandy made from grapes, which has been produced in both 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 (in fact, last year Chile produced almost 30 million litres and Peru 9.5 million). The spirit varies in colour, depending on the fermentation process.

A BREIF HISTORY OF RIVALRY

Pisco was first produced in the 16th century by Spanish settlers as an alternative to orujo, a pomace brandy that was being imported from Spain. The oldest known reference to the word “pisco” is from 1764, in regard to Peruvian aguardiente. Many historians claim the word comes from the town of Pisco on the southern coast of Peru, which is known for its viniculture, and has been for several centuries.

From the port of Pisco, the product was distributed along the entire coast of Peru and Chile, as well as being exported through ports in the Pacific and Europe. In a few decades, pisco became the favourite drink of many in the continent as well as becoming a valuable asset for international trade. By 1764, the production of pisco dwarfed the production of wine, with pisco representing 90% of the grape beverages produced in the region.

However, the 19th century saw the production of Peruvian pisco decline, whereas production in Chile continued to grow, with1931 seeing the Chilean government obtain a Denomination of Origin (DO) and exclusivity in the production of pisco. By 1999, the Peruvians were back in the game with a resurgence of interest in methods of growing and producing pisco, resulting in the controversial development of Peru’s own DO. The rivalry continues to this day.

HOW IS PISCO MADE?

Peru and Chile have different regulations regarding its production, with Peru producing the most pisco. For both, the grapes are juiced, then fermented for a few weeks. The resulting wine is then distilled in copper pot stills to produce a higher ABV spirit.

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. Ageing is allowed and produces a transparent amber liquid. Most often, American or French oak or native rauli beech barrels are used in this ageing process.

HOW DO YOU DRINK PISCO?

Pisco is often sipped neat before dinner as an aperitif, and all manner of pisco cocktails work wonders alongside seafood dishes such as ceviche. However, the most popular cocktail is of course the Pisco Sour. Further to the rivalry over the spirit, both countries also claim this classic serve as their national cocktail, with each recipe (naturally) differing slightly. The Peruvian Pisco Sour is a shaken drink of pisco, fresh lime juice, sugar 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.

RECIPE: PISCO SOUR

Difficulty: **

Strength: Sipper

Flavour profile: Tart, Sweet, Bright

INGREDIENTS (Serves 1)

- 60 ml pisco

- 30 ml fresh lime juice

- 30 ml simple syrup 

- 1 egg white

- 3 drops of Angostura bitters

HOW TO MAKE IT

1. Add the pisco, freshly squeezed lime juice and simple syrup to a shaker. Shake without ice – this will help the foam to develop

2. Add ice to the shaker and shake again until cool

3. Strain into a coupe glass and let the foam settle before finishing with a few drops of bright Angostura bitters

RECIPE VARIATION

The Chilean Pisco Sour with no egg white makes for a great vegan alternative to this traditional cocktail.

LEXIR RECOMMENDED PISCOS

La Caravedo Quebranta A pure, clear pisco from Peru’s Ica Valley, La Caravedo is made from the hand-harvested “macho grape” Quebranta. Single distilled in a 100% copper still and rested for six months in a non-reactive container, no outside forces change the structure or character of the pisco itself. The natural flavours and aromas are allowed to evolve and expand, and the outcome is a flawlessly, exceptional, clear pisco.