If there ever was a moot topic to touch while seated at a table with Peruvians and Chilenos, few things could rival the passion that both the countries reserve for Pisco. I will stay on the smarter side of the argument by not even venturing to say who possibly made it first. Suffice to say, I’d sooner comment on the alcohol and meat situation in India!
But what I can tell you is this: the Spanish introduced grapes to both these countries and while Chile made these vineyards flourish and prosper, wine remained a less important exploit just across the border in Peru. Nothing wrong with that, for they found that while the wine space was extremely competitive and they didn’t have the natural edge, what they did have were lands gifted to grow grapes to be distilled into Pisco. So today, Peruvians have an extensive and thriving Pisco culture, segregating it by styles and grape varieties, whereas, in Chile, Pisco remains a traditional grape distillate, important, but never as much as the wines possibly.
Now, I could be wrong here, but from my visits and tastings in Chile, Pisco wasn’t necessarily classified by the grape of provenance. This is because all the grapes were better suited to yield wine. The Pisco industry there thus chose to work with other lesser-viable grapes. In Peru, with the wine industry taking a backseat, Pisco is where all their efforts are concentrated. So while both countries can serve you a mean Pisco sour, Peru will also be able to afford you a more in-depth tasting of their various styles, all of which are small-batch single-distilled in copper stills.
For example, there’s Pisco Puro, which comes from one single grape variety, the Acholado, which is made from a blend of grapes either before or after distillation, and Most Verde, which is made with partially-fermented grape must thus imparting a tinge of refreshing sweetness to the final distillate.
Only eight designated grapes can be used and they have to be grown in one of the four pre-defined areas of production. Pisco must be laid to rest for three months after being made. No flavouring can be added, not even water to dilute it down before bottling: so all Pisco here is bottled at cask strength, which means controlling the distillation rigorously to ensure that the spirit isn’t higher proof. It can’t be aged in wood either. All this makes Pisco a very true-to-nature product, relying solely on the raw material, which, in turn, relies on nature for its quality, or lack thereof. Hence, the famous quirky adage: “Cognac is made by oak, while Pisco is made by God.” Chilean Pisco, by contrast, can be distilled multiple times from a mix of grapes and even be aged in oak. It is also, going by historical records, a more recent adaptation of the name (but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t make a similar distillate since earlier). They have 14 grapes allowed and grade their Pisco by alcoholic strength rather than style. So effectively, quite a different approach really.
I recently got some Pisco samples graciously sent to me from the Peruvian purveyors of Pisco and I quickly busied myself tasting and sipping, being careful not to finish it all, for I wished to be able to shake up one very refreshing cocktail: the Pisco Sour. It’s a classic sour (spirit, egg white, sugar, lime juice and a dash of bitters all shaken over ice and served straight up) and it never disappoints. But, as has been established above, a good Pisco can be sipped by itself just like any other fine spirit.
We are seeing the rise of Pisco in our country, so this article is well-timed. Next time you are out and feel the need to try something different, ask the bartender if he/she is stocking any Pisco and then see how creative they can get with it. Else, play it safe and go for the Sour.
The writer is a sommelier