Saving Pisco from Sour Ruination

by Meha Desai
June 2014

Restaurant

A Pisco Tasting at PiscoBar                                    
Listed by: Varietal, Proprietary Name, Producer, Region, Country, and Vintage

  • Torontel/Quebranta, Cholo Matías, Ica, Peru 2011
  • ​Torontel, Cholo Matías, Ica, Peru 2010
  • Criolla, Pisco Negra, Torre de La Gala, Jewel Valley, Peru 2012
  • Albilla, Cholo Matías, Ica, Peru 2010
  • Moscatel, Torre de La Gala, Jewel Valley, Peru 2012
  • Italia, Torre de la gala, Jewel Valley, Peru 2012

Pisco Varietals are Divided into Two Categories

Aromatic

  • Moscatel
  • Italia
  • Albilla
  • ​Toronte Dry

Dry

  • Quebranta
  • Mollar
  • Negra Criolla
  • Uvina

On a corner of trendy Miraflores in Lima, Peru, Ricardo Carpio is a man on a mission. With his aptly named PiscoBar, he’s fighting hard to reclaim the national spirit of Peru from pisco sour domination. Though there might be El Dia Nacional del Pisco Sour (National Pisco Sour Day), Carpio’s bar stands in dissent of that celebration, and he's working to bring more attention to the other cocktails that pisco makes possible. But more than anything, he wants you to drink it neat. 

“People think pisco is only a pisco sour,” Carpio says. “You have to drink it alone, drink it straight to understand it, to understand the difference between pisco and other distilled products. It goes far beyond cocktails, it’s a spirit to sip neat or chilled.”

Piscos at PiscoBar

Piscos at PiscoBar

Pisco

Pisco

Ricardo Carpio of PiscoBar

Ricardo Carpio of PiscoBar

Pisco is a nuanced spirit, which like Champagne, tequila, or Scotch whisky, is an official appellation. Made from a single distillation of young wine with one of eight grape varietals, true Peruvian pisco must adhere to rigorous, traditional production methods. Nothing, not even water, may be added. “The key to Peruvian pisco is the big denomination area (more than 1,000 kilometers) and the process. The juice from the first pressing of the grapes is fermented and then distilled only once, to better preserve the flavors of the grapes,” Carpio explains.

Weighing in on pisco trends outside Peru, Ricardo Romero, Director of the trade Commission of Peru Los Angeles says, “although pisco sours have been enjoying great popularity among American consumers for some years, it’s now the pisco itself that is becoming a trend in local bars and among some of the most important mixologists in the U.S., due to it’s unique taste and aroma, but also because of its versatility.”

Founder of The Liquid Chef, Inc., Mixologist Junior Merino says, “the reality is that most consumers don’t know what pisco is. You have to give them the opportunity to fall in love with the product. In the beginning, give them flavors and ingredients they recognize. Once they understand it and respect it from every angle, they will drink it straight.”

Merino points to the growth and acceptance of tequila as a possible model for pisco, with reservations. “Pisco is advancing. There’s definite movement. But what really helped tequila was the more than 38 million Mexicans living in America. Pisco is still a niche product. There’s a lot of support needed and a lot of work to be done.”    

At PiscoBar, Carpio offers pisco tastings where he passes on the knowledge he learned from his grandfather, another champion of pisco. “People are now beginning to understand the different grapes, and the distillation process, and so they want to drink (just) Pisco, to understand it.”

In Peru, pisco is fermented on the skins, resulting in a more robust taste than its counterpart (and rival) in Chile. It’s also produced in smaller batches and bottled at distillation strength, making it rather formidable (most piscos start out at about 80 proof). Peruvian pisco has a reputation for being more about terroir than Chilean pisco. “When you have the same grape at two different altitudes, you have the same product, but you have a vast difference in aromas and flavors on the nose and in the mouth,” Carpio says. The pisco grapes are divided into two categories, aromatic or dry. The aromatic varietals have much more prominent aromas and taste, with many floral and fruit notes. 

Because there’s such a large variety of piscos, Carpio advises that there’s a pisco for “all moments: before lunch, to open the appetite; and after a meal, for good digestion; and even in the afternoon with coffee.”

As for pisco sour, Carpio thinks it just takes too long to make (a neat drink will always be quicker!) and often has too much sugar. Also, the preferred citrus for a pisco sour is a chulucuna, which is not available for mass consumption outside South America—save your precious limes for margaritas! If you’re not taking your pisco straight, Carpio recommends simple cocktails that will allow the novice to discern the nuances of the different pisco grapes. The Chilcano de Pisco is a refreshing combination of Pisco Torontel and ginger ale, and Pisco Albilla works well with tonic. And there are more options still: Pisco Quebranta with vermouth rosso; the Canario of Pisco Negra Criolla and orange juice. At Virgilio Martinez's Central, Bartender David Romero infuses pisco with hibiscus, grapefruit, and ginger. These straightforward drinks allow the personality of Peruvian pisco to shine through. 

“Real pisco is miles away from the industrialized stuff, it’s an artisan product,” says Carpio. It also has a backbone that can ground libations like the festive and beloved Pisco Punch, made with Pisco Muscatel, pineapple juice, lemon, and cherry. Rudyard Kipling once wrote of the punch, “[it’s] compounded of the shavings of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters." 

Whether it’s a tropical dawn or a pisco neat, Carpio is an advocate for both, “[Pisco is] a great pair for the powerful flavors of Peruvian food.” And from his corner PiscoBar, Carpio is creating a distinctly Peruvian experience that won’t leave a sour taste in your mouth.