IN THE EARLY 1980s, cinematic maniac Werner Herzog made a film called “Fitzcarraldo,” starring actual maniac Klaus Kinski, about a man who, due to his own kind of mania, moves a riverboat over a mountain so he can build an opera house in the Amazon jungle.
The real Fitzcarraldo was a rubber baron (and robber baron) who supposedly did move a boat in this miraculous fashion, but the bit about building the opera house was fictional. However, that urge for a fish-out-of-water colonial imperialist sweating in the wilds of the New World to re-create the much-missed “refinements” of the Old World was quite real, and led to one of South America’s most beloved potent potables: pisco.
Pisco is South America’s version of that quintessential European luxury, brandy, which is essentially wine that has been distilled into a hard liquor, often made from grapes (although not exclusively). Originally, the purpose of distilling wine was to make transportation easier, as the reduction in water content meant that more alcohol by volume could be shipped in fewer containers.
One can imagine why the Spanish would have wanted to make their own brandy (and, by extension, wine) in that “new world” so far away from the tavernas of home, transporting these sloshing vats of precious gold liquid across the rugged Andean terrain, through jungles and over mountains — an activity far less difficult than (but just as quixotic as) carrying an entire boat, with the same ultimate end: to bring a bit of gleaming European luxury to what they viewed as the wild edges of civilization.
And unlike in much of what then was called “New Spain,” the climate of the coastal valleys of South America’s west coast was an ideal place to grow grapes. Pisco production began in the 16th century, but no one can quite agree where. Peru and Chile together hog much of South America’s western coast, two long, flat countries pressed against the sea. They share a land border less than 100 miles wide, but have found more than a few things to build a rivalry over, and one of those is the question of which is the original home of pisco. Both use possibly dubious etymological arguments to boost their claims, and while that question remains unsettled, both also indubitably produce piscos from a wide variety of grapes, with jealously guarded denominations of origin, and the niceties of appreciating pisco’s terroir and varietals are as complex and sophisticated as any type of wine.
Pisco is not, however, simply brandy by another name. Unlike brandy, pisco (modern pisco, that is) cannot be aged in wood barrels; can be distilled only once, in a copper still (brandy generally is distilled twice); and must be distilled and bottled to proof, which means producers can’t add water after the fact to adjust the ABV. What you put in is what you get with pisco, an almost magical process that allows for no fudging or adjustment — nothing can be added: no flavorings, no sugar, nothing but the soul of the grape itself. It also must be distilled from actual wine and not pomace (a byproduct of winemaking), putting it in the same category as high-end products such as cognac.
And then, after all that, and although finer pisco is quite sippable on its own, people often just make a cocktail out of it. The Pisco Sour is by far the most famous pisco cocktail, a concoction created, once again, in either Peru or Chile, depending on whom you ask. The classic recipe is similar to a classic whiskey sour, but with tweaked ingredients: 2 ounces of pisco (any pisco) to 1 ounce of lime juice, ½ ounce of simple syrup or equivalent sugar, a dash of bitters (generally Angostura) and a raw egg white, all shaken together and then poured into a coupé glass.
Second in popularity is Pisco Punch (a combination of two parts pisco and one part each pineapple juice and citrus juice), developed in San Francisco in the 1800s, when pisco was imported with ease by steamers sailing up and down the West Coast. That cocktail was so delicious, it even pleased a grumpy Rudyard Kipling (not a fan of San Francisco itself), who described it in his American travel tome, “From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches: Letters of Travel,” as “compounded of the shavings of cherub’s wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters” — a sentiment so poetic, it might have satisfied even the operatic heart of that fictional maniac Fitzcarraldo himself.