The Pisco Sour. How undeniably delicious is this beverage? Watching someone drink one for the very first time has been a gratifying experience for me as a bartender. With furled brow and apprehension they ask, "Wait, is there dairy in this?" Nope. "OMFG this is so delicious. It's like drinking a cloud! Did you say this was Brandy based?" Yep. Peruvian Brandy, in most cases, although Chile produces Pisco and claims it as their national spirit as well. This has been a debate between the two countries for years. During the Spanish colonization of South America, Peru and Chile fell under the same jurisdiction. Although Pisco was first produced in the region of Peru at the time, the grape vines were transported to what is now Chilean territory. When Peru and Chile became separate countries and gained independence, they both continued to produce Pisco.
Peru, however, has far more to offer in terroir, with production following specific national regulations. Wikipedia gives a concise explanation of Peruvian Pisco designation:
Puro (Pure), made from a single variety of grape, mostly Quebranta, although Mollar or Common Black can be used; however, no blending between varieties is accepted ("pure" pisco should contain only one variety of grape).
Aromáticas (Aromatic), made from Muscat or Muscat-derived grape varieties, and also from Albilla, Italia and Torontel grape varieties; once again, the Pisco should only contain one variety of grape in any production lot.
Mosto Verde (Green Must), distilled from partially fermented must, this must be distilled before the fermentation process has completely transformed sugars into alcohol.
Acholado (Half-breed), blended from the must of several varieties of grape.
Peruvian Pisco is also distilled to proof in copper pot stills, without the addition of water, sugar or additives.
The national spirit may also only be rested in glass, stainless steel, or any other similar vessel that does not change the appearance or chemical makeup of the Brandy.
Chilean Pisco is made somewhat differently. The grape varietals are specific to Chilean terroir, of course, and are fermented to a wine containing 14% alcohol, before continuous distillation. The liquor is aged in wood for around three months, diluted back down to proof, filtered and bottled.
Peru produces a mere tenth of what Chile pumps out on a yearly basis. It's small business, artisan distilleries are trumped by Chile's massive production scheme, yet U.S. Peruvian Pisco sales passed Chilean back in 2008.
Pisco has been imported to the United States for over 180 years. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Pisco was consumed in high volume all over California, favored specifically in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. The Bay city is home to a rich history of Pisco growth in popularity, the debut of the famous Pisco Punch, and praise given by literary giants like Mark Twain.
Over the past few years, Pisco has not only been able to keep its dirty little grape stained foot jammed into the door of US imports, but has experienced an influx of awareness and new brand development. Pisco is loved by bartenders because it is an artisanal spirit that is a pure representation of the depth, complexity and terroir of Peruvian and Chilean grapes. Staples like The Asher sister's Pisco's Macchu and La Diablada, and BarSol Quebranta have been well-used favorites for years. Only within the last year or so, new brands are coming on the scene vying for attention and helping to expand Pisco awareness. To name only a few:
San Francisco bar man Duggan McDonnell teamed up with sommelier Walter Moore, and Peruvian distiller Carlos Romer to release Encanto, an Acholado whose beautiful bottle reads "Pisco for Bartenders by Bartenders." Make of that slogan what you will, this hand-crafted Pisco is delicious and expertly blended.
Vinas de Oro produces six different single grape varietal Pisco Puros which are all amazing, with new marks being released as I type this. Who's getting jiggy now?
Porton Pisco has publicly announced their plan to pump 20 million into the brand, and is talked up to be the juggernaut of Pisco's that will help the spirit reach mainstream recognition and potentially take on sales of vodka and rum. Unfortunately, Porton is not super sexy on the palate and has been described as tasting like "an upscale moonshine," so I wouldn't hold your breath on that one.
Even Steve Olson has his hand in the cookie jar. Grand Marnier is producing a premium Chilean Pisco called Kappa, which should be hitting shelves soon. "Why wouldn't Steve Olson put out his own Pisco!!??"
Remy Martin has a new product out called V, which is not a Cognac, but rather a 100% eua-de-vie made from French Ugni Blanc grapes. V is actually within its own category, but tastes much like a Pisco. And by that I mean super delicious. V is a small batch production that is twice copper pot distilled and processed through proprietary ice cold filtration at 14 degrees Fahrenheit, giving the finished product no color whatsoever.
Popularity of Pisco within the mixologist microcosm is apparent, but has the spirit gained any traction with the larger consumer market? Ricky Gomez of Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon thinks not. "It's hard to see in the general market, and it's also a difficult spirit to explain [to the general consumer]. Pisco is made using sweet grapes, yet it's a dry spirit, and the knowledge of what it is and how it's produced is still very novice." Ricky is also concerned that Pisco sales in the United States could follow the trend of Cachaca, and fade away after a massive marketing push.
L.A.'s Julian Cox, currently the beverage director at Picca Peruvian Restaurant, fell in love with Pisco. He feels similar sentiments for Pisco as he does for Mezcal, and sees the spirits collaterally, as both have experienced a rebirth through new brand development and industry awareness.
Julian also loves Pisco for its nuance. "Pisco is special because it's probably one of the most expensive [spirits] to make. If you're making great Pisco you have to use great grapes. For instance, if you are making a Mosto Verde you're going to be using 40 lbs of grapes to make one bottle. People don't understand that it's very expensive to make good Pisco. When people taste it they are thinking its a crude spirit, like a grappa, when in reality grappa is made from stems, sticks, seeds and skins, where as Pisco is made only with beautiful grapes."
Given the current pace at which new Pisco's are entering the market, there is much opportunity for the category to continue to grow within the cocktail community, which is one reason it remains so appealing. "I'm constantly able to have new bartenders who come into Picca taste new Pisco's and new grape varietals that they had no idea even existed. There's a lot of room for people to still be exposed to Pisco," Julian explains. He also believes that with more and more brand development will come better quality Piscos, which will only help build the spirit’s reputation within the larger market. However, he doubts it's ability to rival the big boys like vodka or Tequila. "If Peruvian cuisine continues to become more popular, and it's already very popular, you're going to see a big jump, as it's a fast growing spirit. But I don't know if it would be able to compete on a larger level with Rums, or even Irish Whiskeys. But anything can happen, and the more people try it and understand it for what it is, the more we will continue to see it get popular."
Here's a Pisco Sour variation I came up with to bring us into the holiday season. It's named in commemoration of the year that signifies the first documentation of an alcoholic drink in post Columbian Peru.
1.5 oz Pisco
1 oz sweetened coconut milk
.5 oz Navan Vanilla Cognac liqueur
.25 oz Fresh lemon juice
1 egg white
Shake all ingredients without ice, shake again with ice, strain into an egg coupe or wine glass and garnish decoratively with Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Bitters.
"The Pisco Book" by Gregory Dicum
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