The History of Peruvian Pisco
Peruvian Pisco celebrates a long history joining the cultures of Europe with those of South America, as well as North America. As the story goes, grape distillation practices used in Spain were brought to the New World along with cuttings for grape vines. Peru began growing and selling wine as early as the 16th century, and is known to have begun making Pisco from freshly made wine as early as the 17th century. The advent of mining in the New World helped spread Pisco throughout the colonies, with boats taking the beverage all the way North into what is now known as California in the 18th century.
Chilé claims the famous Pisco Sour as its national beverage. However, methods for making Chilean and Peruvian Pisco differ significantly. There has also been contestation over where the distilled drink originates. History rests on the side of Peru for Pisco beginning there prior to in Chilé but, ultimately, Chilean Pisco is simply a different beverage that shares the name with one made in Peru. All of that said, there are some wonderful drinks to make with Chilean Pisco, which I’ll focus on in a future post.
An important element that separates the two National types rests in government regulations around Pisco production. Peru maintains strict controls on what can count as Pisco with a focus on developing a pure expression of the grapes used. No water can be added for diluting the alcohol levels. No sugars can be added to increase alcohol levels or alter flavor. No additives of any kind are allowed. After distillation is complete, Pisco must be held at least three months to allow for the flavors and composition of the beverage to settle. However, such aging must occur in a vessel that does not impact the purity of flavor — stainless steel or glass are most commonly used. Wood is not allowed.
The beauty of Pisco rests in its pure aromatic expression of the grape. Peruvian Pisco in particular focuses on creating an ultra clean presentation through the methods used in production. Because distillation separates the alcohol from the heavier liquids, a clean distillation process can greatly increase the aromatics of the materials distilled. With this in mind, Peruvian Pisco must be made from a just-fermented, or “young,” wine. Producers focused on quality also sort their grapes to use only the finest, cleanest fruit. In order to reduce any sense of harsh aromatics, producers focused on quality also de-stem clusters prior to pressing. Further, Peruvian Pisco must be made with only vessels that do not impart their own aromatic qualities. That is, no wood is allowed in the process.
Style of Peruvian Pisco
There are essentially four types of Peruvian Pisco.
The two primary distinctions make Pisco either as a single-varietal distillate, or a blended one. Taking the first option, the most straightforward is the Pisco Puro, which distills wine made from only one variety into an ultra clean expression of the grape. Pisco can also be made as a blend of any of the eight varieties allowed in Peruvian Pisco. This style is called Pisco Acholado. Blending can occur prior to fermentation, or before or after distillation.
The eight varieties are recognized as four, which are considered to be overtly aromatic grapes — Moscatel, Albilla, Italia, Torontel — and four that, in comparison, are less so, and so called non-aromatic — Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Mollar, Uvina. A third style of Pisco, the Pisco Aromáticas, is made from any of the four aromatic grapes, with a particular focus on preserving and expressing their aromatic aspects. A Pisco Aromáticas generally also turns out to be a Pisco Acholado, that is a blended style Pisco.
The fourth style of Pisco less commonly leaves Peru than the other three. Pisco Mosto Verde may be made with any of the grape varieties, and with a single grape or a blend. What is important here is that the young wine distilled to make the Pisco has not fermented all the way to dryness. Some residual sugar has been left in the wine, which gives the final Pisco a little more weight and smoothness on the palate, with a touch of sweetness. This style of Pisco is more commonly meant to sip on its own, rather than for blending in cocktails.
Three Piscos to Try
Macchu Pisco, Pisco Puro — Quebranta, 40%, $25 http://www.macchupisco.com/
A premium Pisco perfect for the Pisco Sour, the non-aromatic Puro style Pisco from Macchu Pisco keeps a strong focus on tradition, family, and quality in its production methods. The grapes are de-stemmed, then foot pressed (rather than hydraulic) with all seeds removed prior to fermentation to reduce any chance of bitterness. The result is an ultra clear, ultra clean lightly floral nose, with a citrus palate dancing with savory back notes and lots of freshness. The quality here is wonderful, and lifting.
La Diablada Pisco 2011 Achlado Pisco — Quebranta, Moscatel, Italia, Torontel, 40%, $40 http://www.macchupisco.com/
Another premium Pisco, this blend gives a lot of floral aromatic focus offering a mix of melon, stone-fruits (both cherries and peach), and touches of fruit spice. The name “La Diablada” refers to the dance of angels and demons fighting for balance. The Pisco itself seems to represent such a dance through its giving a pretty and elevated expression of a firey drink — there is no doubt this is alcohol but it’s pleasant. This Pisco does well for other styles of mixed drinks that bring in a range of fruit and spice flavors, or also other mixers, rather than the more singular Pisco Sour, which would overpower the subtlety here. The Pisco Punch would be a classic example.
Campo de Encanto, Acholado Pisco — Quebranta, Italia, Torontel, Moscatel, 40.5%, $35 http://www.encantopisco.com/
Focusing on the Pisco blend, the Campo de Encanto shows off citrus notes on the nose, while shifting to orchard fruit and flower alongside a fresh winter forest element on the palate. Apple plus almond flower and evergreen show up here giving a rich while lifted, fresh and energetic flavor to the Pisco. While the Campo de Encanto can work for a Pisco Sour, it suits blending for light fruit focused cocktails that step outside a singular citrus expression. The Pisco Punch is a classic example.
Drinking Peruvian Pisco
The Pisco Sour and the Pisco Punch are two classic cocktails but a ton can be done with Pisco. Though I’ve been playing with mixing Pisco drinks myself, I am going to refer you to cocktail recipes developed by others here.
The Classic Pisco Sour, from Imbibe Magazine:
Pisco Punch (invented originally in SF), from Pedro Miguel Schiaffino:
To play outside the classics, following are some recipes that will take advantage of the Acholado Pisco style.
An Andean Dusk, developed by Meaghan Dorman:
A TON of fun Pisco recipes great for Acholada Pisco, and some for Puro: http://www.thepiscobook.com/recipes
To read more on Pisco:
An article in PUNCH from Alia Akkam: http://punchdrink.com/articles/into-the-mystic-discovering-piscos-spiritual-roots/
An article in BEVERAGE JOURNAL from Robert Plotkin (including more recipes): http://www.beveragejournalinc.com/new/easyblog/entry/the-second-coming-of-pisco
Thanks to Melanie Asher. Thanks to Marilyn Krieger and David Greenberg.
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