Parsing Pisco: Chile, Peru, and the Next Big Thing from Years Past

by Emily Bell
Will Blunt, Antoinette Bruno, and Shannon Sturgis Emily Bell
August 2011


Milcao Pisco Sour
Mixologist Nicolas Perez Cortez of Milcao - Santiago, Chile

Pisco Cocktail
Mixologist Junior Merino of The Liquid Chef - New York, NY

Same Same But Different
Mixologist Justin Noel of 1534 - New York, NY

Hard Cocoa
Mixologist Johnny Santiago of Jo's - New York, NY

Peruvian Necktie
Mixologist Johnny Santiago of Jo's - New York, NY

Mixologist Leo Robitschek of Eleven Madison Park - New York, NY

The Infusion Pisco Sour
Mixologist James Watkins of Soma Sushi - Houston, TX


Mixologist Johnny Santiago

Mixolgist Justin Noel

Mixologist Junior Merino


Interview with Liquid Chef Junior Merino

If you bring up Ray’s Pizza in the right (or wrong) company in New York City, you’re bound to get a heated response. The same holds true for pisco, the “national drink” of Chile … and Peru. In its roughest form, pisco is a catch-all term for grape brandy produced in those countries. But as many mixologists already know, what qualifies as pisco on one side of the border doesn’t translate to the other. And unlike the Ray’s dispute—which seems to have resolved itself with recourse to verbal superlatives (Ray’s Famous Original, Famous Original Ray’s, and the none too subtle World Famous Original Ray’s)—the pisco problem runs deep, like emotionally deep, with each country claiming rightful ownership of both the name and culture of pisco.

Meanwhile, mixologists are incorporating more and more pisco into their cocktail cabinets, which seems to beg for the preservation of both kinds of pisco, in all their procedural idiosyncrasies. But as property rights and history are disputed, will the two-pronged glory of pisco be lost in the shuffle?

What’s in a Name?

The Hard Coca

The Hard Coca
Mixologist Johnny Santiago of Jo's - New York, NY

Geographically, Peru seems to have one major nomenclatorial advantage: Pisco is the name of a Peruvian port city, and “pisco” as we know, love, and drink it today, took its name from that locale. If that’s not enough, a handful of Julys ago, Peru celebrated a big victory. The World Intellectual Property Organization granted them appellation rights to the term pisco, at least for any states that agreed to the Lisbon Agreement. The streets of Santiago de Sucro literally ran with pisco. A fountain in the town square was filled with 1,000 liters of the stuff and citizens were encouraged to drink and celebrate. Partial victory and alcohol? Not a bad day.

But even as Peruvians got buzzed on the international street cred, Chile continued to produce more pisco annually than its neighbor, about 50 times more. And while the country doesn’t dispute the pisco-Pisco port connection, Chile reasonably argues that its higher production gives it commercial and cultural rights to the name. They’ve made their own legal strides toward that end, but the country essentially has a “live and let drink” attitude, with less at stake politically than commercially. “Different wines—what is better? You have Bordeaux and Burgundy,” says Norman Dabner of Chile’s Pisco Waqar. “I have friends in Peru, and they make very good pisco.” With the European Union and United States (among others) recognizing Chile's right to import piscos, it seems likely we'll all be drowning in all kinds of grape brandy in the years to come.

Pisco, Sour

In a funny kind of historical irony, all pisco is really the result of Spanish imperialism (Spain wisely doesn’t claim any rights to it). Not all of the Conquistadors’ grape imports were suited for South American soil, so Peruvian locals were handed grapes like Moscatel and Torontel and left to do what they would with detritus of imbibing civilization. What they did was create an aguardiente, or “fiery water,” from grape must—a spirit at once potent and affordable that evolved into modern day pisco.

The Same Same But Different

The Same Same But Different
Mixologist Justin Noel of 1534 - New York, NY

The name might be a point of national pride, but the fact is, even if they were in the same bottle with the exact same label, Chilean and Peruvian piscos could never be confused. Beyond a few basic elements—enough to qualify as grape brandies—the production methods of Chilean and Peruvian piscos differ from the terroir and the bottle to the sour and beyond.  “They both make good quality piscos,” says Liquid Chef Junior Merino. “But their methods are completely different.” (Merino, who discussed it with us earlier this week, will expound upon the virtues and variety of pisco in his 2011 ICC mixology workshop.)

Peruvian pisco begins with a short-term fermentation (about two weeks) of the juice and skins of eight grape varieties, aromatic and non-aromatic, followed by distillation in copper pots and a nice three month nap—not to be confused with aging—in steel containers (which allow the authentic flavors of the grapes to shine through). Chilean pisco, which tends to focus on three aromatic grapes (Moscatel, Pedro Jimenez, and Torontel) begins with wine, which is column-distilled and aged in oak barrels—not only contributing heavily to the flavor profile (variously sweet, nutty, woody, and hot) but turning the finished product’s color anything from light to dark to dandelion yellow.

Off with Its Head?

Another major point of differentiation between the piscos happens in the distillation process, where Peruvian pisco veers off in two distinct ways. It’s single distilled, meaning it’s bottled at distillation strength (“that’s why I separate Peruvian pisco from any other type of spirit in the world,” says Merino) and it incorporates the head, or ultra-potent first distillate, back into the finished product. The head not only provides potency, but its impurities contribute the majority of the flavor profile, especially for Pure piscos made with a single variety non-aromatic grape like Quebranta or Molar. Other varieties include Aromatico, made with aromatic grapes from the Moscatel family, Mosto Verde piscos like Pisco Portón (as in the Portuguese Vinho, Verde denotes youth, here the use of partially fermented juice), and Acholado, which blends aromatic and non-aromatic grapes.

The Pisco Sour

The Pisco Sour
Nicolas Perez Cortez of Milcao - Santiago, Chile

Like most other distilled spirits, Chilean pisco discards the head, focusing on the smoother, rounder body. And unlike Peruvian pisco, the Chilean final product is not bottled at distillation strength, but rather diluted with water to reach the desired alcohol content before aging in oak barrels. Varieties of Chilean pisco are highly controlled (though denoted by seemingly casual monikers), ranging from “Regular” (60 to 70 proof) to “Great” (around 90 proof and up).

That’s the Spirit

Their embassies might still argue (a recent battle over the name rights of a popular Peruvian pudding (yes, pudding) might have stirred up old hurt), but behind the bar, there’s nothing but love for the mosaic applications of pisco—its single grape varietals and blends, the range of proofs, the effects of steel versus oak, etc. What does a bartender—or drinker—like more than variety?

Infusion Pisco Sour

Infusion Pisco Sour
James Watkins of Soma Sushi - Houston, TX

“All of these styles of pisco have different flavor profiles and aromatic noses, which as a bartender allows you to play around with different ingredients,” says 1534 Mixologist Justin Noel, who uses a Pure Quebranta pisco in his sour variation “Same Same But Different.” “You can make some amazingly different tasting pisco sours or pisco punches, keeping all the ingredients the same, but just switching out the pisco varietals you use.” Johnny Santiago of Jo’s agrees. “It's subtle,” says Santiago. “It has something like the body of tequila [and] the flexibility of white rum.”

And flexibility–the variety at the root of the pisco dispute—is the major selling point, at least from the bartender’s perspective, and not just because Latin-inspired cocktails are making major headway in mixology. (Though Merino wisely notes, with 50 million plus Latinos in the United States, “Americans start to get used to Latin flavors and Latin spirits.”) “Pisco is really growing!” says Mixologist James Watkins, who ups the pucker-ante of his Peruvian Barsol pisco sour with Bonal Quinine and chicarron dust at Houston’s Soma Sushi. “It's more flexible than tequila or gin, a mini-adventure for the guest.” Whether that adventure is Peruvian or Chilean is up to you, and your palate. “People should try and see,” says Dabner. Merino concurs. “At the end of the day, you choose which flavor you like best.”  Just don’t compare it to grappa.