Pisco is a potent South American brandy with a storied history and a passionate following. Pisco is exported from both Peru and Chile, and both countries claim to be the original producers of the liqueur. Pisco is made from only certain varieties of grapes, which are fermented and distilled into a potent aguardiente. It is the essential ingredient in the now world famous cocktail, the pisco sour.
The Spanish conquistadores brought grape vines to South America, in order to make wine for their own consumption and export. The story goes that pisco came into being as a way to use leftover grapes that were undesirable for wine making. Pisco is technically a brandy, made by distilling fermented grape juice.
There are several explanations for how this ususual brandy got its name. Some say that the word pisco comes from the Quechuan word 'pisqu', which was the name of a bird found in the Ica valley region of Peru. It may be named after the town of Pisco, a port city near the Nazca lines from which pisco was shipped to Lima as well as popularized by sailors. The name is also said to come from the large pre-Colombian clay pots, called piscos, that are used to ferment the grapes.
Pisco has been produced in Chile for hundreds of years as well, as these regions were once all part of the same Spanish viceroyalty. The vigorous dispute about whether pisco "belongs" to Chile or Peru continues on to this day.
Pisco is made from only certain varieties of grapes, grown in designated regions of Peru and Chile. The grapes are fermented into wine, then distilled. The resulting liqueur is briefly aged, then bottled. In Peru, pisco is never diluted, according to the very strict, specified rules governing its production. In Chile, pisco is sometimes mixed with distilled water to reach the desired alcohol content.
Types of Pisco
There are four categories of pisco, made from seven varieties of grapes. Pisco puro is made only from black, nonaromatic grapes, usually the quebranta variety. These were the original grapes brought over from Spain, which supposedly changed and adapted to their new environment, resulting in a unique taste. Pisco aromático is made from one of four more fruity and aromatic varieties: muscatél, italia, albilla, and torontél. Pisco acholado is made from a blend of a nonaromatic grape and one or more of the aromatic varieties. Pisco mosto verde is made from partially fermented grapes. Pisco puro and pisco acholado are the varieties most often used to make pisco sours.
There are many interesting cocktails made with pisco. Although pisco has a high alcohol content (ranging from 60 to 100 proof), it tastes very smooth and many people enjoy it straight. Pisco has been known to surprise first-timers with its potency, especially when blended into a cocktail. Pisco sours are notoriously quite strong.
Lima, Peru takes the credit for the first pisco sour. Its inventor is said to have been a North American bartender, Victor Morris, ("Gringo Morris") in the 1920's, at The Morris Bar, near the heart of the city off the plaza de armas.
Besides pisco, the key ingredients for a great pisco sour are very tart key limes, an egg white, and Angostura bitters. The classic preparation is shaken over ice, but it's also made "frozen," in a blender with crushed ice. When a pisco sour is poured into a glass (usually an old-fashioned cocktail glass), the egg white should make at least a half inch of foam on the top of the glass. The bitters are sprinkled on top of the foam.
There are many other classic pisco cocktails, including the algarrobina, a creamy cocktail made with algarrobina syrup and condensed milk, the chilcano (pisco and gingerale), and the famous Chilean Christmas cocktail cola de mono ("monkey's tail"). Trendy new pisco cocktails are constantly being invented, and many make use of the exotic tropical fruits available in South America. Maracuya sours are made with passionfruit juice, and the popular aguaymanto sour is made with a tomatillo-like fruit. Mango sours are deliciously refreshing. Recently, a Peruvian student even invented a handy iphone application that lists dozens of popular pisco cocktails.