Pisco, national spirit of Peru…or is it?

If, for no other reason than as the namesake of the Pisco Sour, cocktail of (often upscale) Latin restaurants, you are probably familiar with pisco.  Many may associate the pisco sour with Peru.

But did you know that Chile produces, consumes, and imports more pisco than anywhere else? Fun fact: Pisco originated roughly at the same time in Peru as Chile in the 16th century.

So what is pisco, exactly? Pisco is yet another type of brandy made from grapes, and actually is made by distilling wine. So it then may make sense why Chile produces over 30 times as much pisco as Chile – they certainly have enough grapes around!

The difference is in Peru’s stricter control over pisco production. I won’t say it’s not an art in Chile – that would be ignorant of me, but pisco production is serious business in Peru. Specific varieties are created in reference to the variety of grapes used; only eight grape varieties, or a blend of those, are permitted. Peruvian pisco is distilled once from wine, while Chilean can be distilled multiple times.

In Peru, pisco puro is made from a single type of grape; Aromaticas are made from single uh, aromatic varieties of grape (e.g., Muscat or Italy). Acholado is a blend of any number or proportion of the eight grape varieties. Mosto Verde piscos are made from grapes that have not been allowed to ferment completely, which produces a sweeter product. Quebranta is both a type of non-aromatic Peruvian grape, distilled puro without blending, and it also is a primary grape blended in acholado versions. Muscatel and Torontel are both specific aromaticas, varietals made from grapes that connoisseurs characterize by lemon and floral notes, respectively.

While in Peru, it would have been helpful to have done this research before trying to buy pisco – both for a gift for friends and to bring to a Peruvian beach costume gala for Carnaval. Bring to a gala? Why yes, that was a surprise to me. With a gala-like ticket price, band, and setting, I was surprised that alcoholic drinks were strictly BYOB (bring your own beverage). So of course, I had to contribute. As the only non-Lima resident in our group, I wanted to avoid an amateur mistake by choosing the wrong kind of pisco for chilcanos.

Sidebar (but an important one at that): Many of you may not have tried a chilcano, but they are fantastic. Chilcanos commonly are made with pisco, ginger ale, and lime, though fancier, more complex versions exist. I’ve also seen them made with lemon-lime soda, but I prefer the ginger-pisco combination.

Chilcanos in Lima.
Chilcanos in Lima.

Anyway, I wished I knew pisco varieties before trying to purchase them. I was overwhelmed by the breadth of varieties and dearth of descriptions at a fairly tiny supermarket. I was too embarrassed to ask someone, though it wasn’t exactly the level of store with uber customer friendly staff to ask in the first place. So I chose a quebranta for the chilcanos and an acholado for a gift. Oops, so the puro quebranta was fine to mix, but the flavor wasn’t particularly memorable. They call it puro for a reason! It didn’t seem to matter. Our large group had several bottles to choose from and combination of sodas. We made piscolas (pisco-cola, what you’d expect from the name), chilcanos, and other concoctions based on what everyone brought. Varieties? Nobody complained; it was all good. It was a bit odd, though, to be squeezing limes and retrieving ginger ale from a cooler to make my own cocktails at an impressive gala. Yet it made for some great memories, as we won big for our group costume and danced to reggaeton, salsa, merengue, and other great music from a lively band.

An enchanted night under the sea for Carnaval, unofficially sponsored by pisco.
An enchanted night under the sea for Carnaval, unofficially sponsored by pisco.

I may not be able to weigh in to a discussion of who does pisco best – Peru or Chile, but I can definitively say that I’ve experienced firsthand that pisco is part of Peru’s cultural identity. The next time you see pisco on a drink menu, try a pisco sour or chilcano for a sip of Peru.


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