The Rise of Peruvian Pisco
South America may not be the first continent that springs to mind, when you’re talking about brandy. Hailing from Peru and Chile, pisco origins are deeply rooted within the cultures and traditions of these diverse countries. Pisco has made a resurgence in popularity recently with mixologists creating new cocktails and featuring it across menus. With a rich and tumultuous history that spans hundreds of years, pisco is still causing turmoil between two countries today, as we will talk about below.
Whether you love pisco or this is the first time you have heard of this grape-based liquor, I want to explore how pisco got its start, and how it is still being produced in almost the same way 500 years from first conception.
So You Maybe Wondering.... What Is Pisco?
Pisco, as you assuredly gathered from the introduction, is a form of brandy, but bears no resemblance to the brandy you may be thinking about right now. Considering the popularity of cognac, it is no surprise that it would be the first one to spring to mind, but pisco is a brandy of a different color, both literally and figuratively. Like French brandy, pisco is a liquor that is distilled from wine, but that is where the similarities end. Where French brandies, like cognac and Armagnac, are aged in oak barrels to alter the original flavors and color, the Peruvian liquor is distilled and aged in a very specific way to preserve the natural flavors of the grapes from which it is made. The best way to understand it is to understand its history.
The History of Pisco: Act I
The story of pisco starts back in the early 1500s when the Spanish Conquistadors first invaded Peru. The Spanish carried wine on long excursions, as the supply began to dwindle they needed a solution. Most of the wine they had originally brought over was already allocated for the church. In order to avoid the hassle and cost of having to import good wine, the Conquistadors wisely imported grapevines instead and thus the vineyards of Peru were established.
Many of these vineyards were maintained by the Jesuits, which only made sense since the church needed the best wine. They would tend the vineyards and keep the best grapes for the church, leaving the remnants for the locals to do with what they wanted. The local Peruvians began making their own form of liquor. Leftover grapes were used in fermenting wine which they would then distill into a milky liquor that they called aguardiente.
Aguardiente, which means firewater, became quite popular among the locals. Thanks to a large international port in the city of Santa Maria Magdalena, pisco quickly gained popularity throughout all of Peru, then Chile, and then on into Europe. By the end of the 16th century, aguardiente was the favorite liquor of Peru and quickly establishing itself across the ocean.
What’s In A Name?
‘Pisco’ is the Quechua word for bird, as there are a lot of birds in the Pisco region, which is how the region got its name in the first place. Not only was the region called Pisco, but eventually so was the town and the port. Even the local people were called Piscos as they tended the vineyards and produced the distilled liquor. The region is well-known for their pottery, particularly a unique type of tall earthenware pitcher called, you guessed it, pisco. Turns out, for native Peruvians, Bird really was The Word.
These earthenware pitchers were what the Spanish used to ferment and age aguardiente which may be where the brandy got its official name. Another theory is that when the aguardiente was first exported it was called Aguardiente de Pisco. Since it is a bit of a mouthful, it was abbreviated to just ‘pisco’. Whether it was named after the region, port, or the pottery, the name was adopted as early as the mid-1600s and hasn’t been altered since.
The Rise and Fall of Pisco Production
Pisco became so popular that by the 1760s over 90% of what was produced by Peruvian vineyards was not wine, but the local liquor. Over the next 100 years, it’s popularity continued to grow, both nationally and internationally. It caught on particularly well in America during the early days of mixology. It was so well-loved during the gold rush of the 1870s that it became San Francisco’s liquor of choice. This led to the invention of Pisco Punch, a tropical cocktail consisting of the spirit, pineapple juice, pineapple chunks, and lime juice. A famous poet, Rudyard Kipling, pronounced Pisco Punch to be so delicious that it tasted like, “Shavings of cherub’s wings…”.
Unfortunately, just as the Peruvian spirit was becoming more popular, two big world events occurred which drastically decreased pisco production. The first event was Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807. During this time South America was essentially cut off from Spain, allowing South American countries to gain more autonomy, which led to unrest. This unrest, in turn, led to a drop in economic production, harming farmers, field workers, and the industry as a whole. The second event that had a major impact on Peru was the American Civil War in 1861. The war caused cotton prices to jump, making it much more economical to grow cotton rather than grapes. With an already damaged economy, it only made sense that farmers would want to grow what was most profitable, and no grapes meant no pisco.
The History of Pisco: Act II
By the time the decrease in production really hit, it was already extremely popular outside of Peru, especially in Chile. It was so popular in Chile that they had begun producing their own liquor, although this is where the story gets murky because Chile also claims to be pisco’s country of origin.
The histories behind wine making in Peru and Chile are very similar and for good reason. When Spain was ruling South America, Peru and Chile were not separate countries, they were simply separate parts of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru. The vineyards of Chile were started with the same imported Spanish grapevines that Peru started with, but the Chilean vineyards went in a slightly different direction. While the Peruvians were focused mainly on producing brandy, the Chileans were producing wine. By the mid-1800s, many of the famous French wine grape varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, had made their way to the vineyards of Chile.
Chile was producing high-quality wines, but those world events intervened. At about the same time that Peru was decreasing their output, Chili was suffering from restrictive Spanish laws concerning the importation of Chilean wines. As a result, Chilean winemakers were suffering. Luckily, the sudden need for pisco solved their problem. They simply switched to making Chilean pisco. Some theorize that they were not necessarily trying to duplicate the Peruvian brandy as much as create their own and they simply kept the name ‘pisco’ because it was already well-known and very popular.
The fact that Chile and Peru were in the same Spanish viceroyalty when the spirit was invented is one of the issues that Chilean supporters cite for their claim to pisco. The theory is that the port of Pisco was an international port that was just as much Chilean as Peruvian. In 1931, the Chilean government made an attempt to legally claim pisco as their own. In a somewhat sketchy move, they even went so far as to change the name of one of their old cities from La Union to Pisco in order to give their claim more weight. Peruvian supporters argue back that history is on their side. They have documentation going as far back as the 16th century saying pisco belongs to them. The sad thing is, the war over its origins is still going on and what they are actually fighting over is the name.
Peruvian Versus Chilean Pisco
Since the origins of wine making in Peru and Chile are so similar, one could easily assume that their wine and pisco would be similar as well, but that is not the case. The war over who truly owns pisco is a feud that has gone on for decades and as a result of this feud, both countries have established strict rules concerning where and how pisco can be produced and distributed. Since the regulations differ between the two countries, the result is two very different piscos.
Peru’s pisco regulations are very strict. Pisco can only be produced in the five official Denomination of Origin areas: Lima, Arequipa, Tacna, Ica, and Moquegua. It can only be distilled in copper pots and must be distilled to proof because additives of any kind are strictly forbidden. Since there are many different types of grapes and different combinations of those grapes can result in varying flavors, Peru also has restricted distillers to using only eight grape varieties. They also have regulations concerning how many varieties you can use in a single batch of pisco. There are four classifications:
- Puro: This is ‘pure’ pisco meaning that it can only be made from one type of grape, usually Quebranta grapes.
- Mosto Verde: This one is slightly different in that it is distilled from wine that is only partially fermented.
- Aromaticas: This type of pisco can be made from Muscat, Albilla, Italia, or Torental grape varieties, but it should still only contain one type of grape.
- Acholado: This type of pisco can be made from the must of several different types of grapes.
Once the brandy is distilled, it must be aged for at least three months in a container that will not alter the pisco in any way. Stainless steel and glass are the most common materials used for the aging containers, but they can also use those earthenware pisco pitchers we mentioned earlier.
Why All The Rules?
These regulations may seem a bit over the top at first, but these rules create a consistency that guarantees excellence. One of the key points to remember about Peru’s pisco is that it has to be distilled at proof, meaning no secondary distilling and no watering it down if it comes out too strong. For this to work, distillers have to have grapes with just the right sugar content. Where do they get those grapes?
Designated vineyards that are located in arid areas where farmers can have strict control over the amount of water that the grapevines receive. If they carefully restrict the amount of water they use, then the water in the grapes will evaporate, leaving behind sweeter grapes. Restricting the types of distilling pots and aging containers helps to ensure that the flavor of the pisco won’t be altered by any of the equipment. All of these factors work together to create a dependably delicious brandy that is like no other.
Chilean pisco can only be produced in Chile’s two official Denominations of Origin locations, Coquimbo and Atacama. They are not restricted to single distillations or only using copper distillation pots, but distillers must grow their own grapes. Chile classifies their piscos by alcohol content and there are four categories:
- Pisco Corriente o Tradicional: 60 to 70 Proof
- Pisco Especial: 70 to 80 Proof
- Pisco Reservado: 80 Proof
- Gran Pisco: 86 or Higher Proof
Chilean distillers can age their pisco in wooden containers if they so choose and they are also permitted to use some additives and distill multiple times. They are also allowed to use 14 different types of grapes compared to Peru’s eight varieties. As you can imagine, this results in a very different brandy from what is produced in Peru, but it is in no way a lesser quality, it is simply different. So different in fact, that even though Chile’s annual pisco production is significantly higher than that of Peru, Chile is still the number one importer of Peruvian pisco. Solid proof that both brandies can coexist and be equally enjoyed for their own merits.
Pisco Sour Recipe
The time has come for us to share our pisco sour recipe. You know how we love to pass along delicious cocktail recipes for your home bar and this one is a definite winner. Sweet and sour with a touch of bitters, it has everything a good cocktail should have, including an indeterminate back story.
- 2oz Pisco (Preferably Peruvian)
- 1oz Fresh Lime Juice
- 1/2oz Simple Syrup
- One Egg White
- Angostura Bitters for Garnish
- 1. Place all main ingredients and ice into your cocktail shaker and shake vigorously.
- 2. Fill a chilled old fashion glass with fresh ice and strain your mix over the top.
- 3. Add 3 drops of bitter for garnish. For a little extra flair, you can use a straw to swirl the bitters into a pleasant design.
- 4. Sit back, Sip, and Enjoy!
This may come as shock to you, but there is some disagreement concerning the origin of this cocktail. The most widely accepted story is that it was invented by an American, named Victor Morris, who owned a bar in Lima in the 1920s. Chileans say that the drink was invented in their country, but, just like with pisco, they’re just fighting over the name. A pisco sour in Peru is different from one you would get in Chile, so really, they both have claims on the pisco sour, just different versions of it. If you want to try the Chilean version, leave out the egg and the bitters and use Chilean pisco and pica lime.
The deep and rich history of pisco is both interesting and somewhat controversial. On one hand, the fact that it has existed for nearly 500 years and has changed very little in that time is incredible. On the other hand, the battle for ownership has caused a lot of turmoil between Chile and Peru. The best course of action is to enjoy both styles of pisco for what they are, delicious representations of South America and its cultures. Whether you’re looking for the sweet earthy flavors of Peru or the tangy woody flavors of Chile, pisco is a unique nod to history you should not miss.
Interested in learning more about spirits? Read more about the history of Tiki Drinks and it rise to popular icon!