Pisco is mostly served in the United States in cocktails, but connoisseurs enjoy the high-quality version of the colorless grape brandy.
PISCO IS A colorless grape brandy first produced in the 1500s by Spanish settlers in Peru. Here in the United States, we’re most likely to drink it in a Pisco Sour, a Pisco Punch or an El Capitan, but connoisseurs enjoy top-quality Pisco as a sipping brandy.
The Spanish made Pisco in Peru so they wouldn’t have to import brandy from Spain. Today, strict rules govern Pisco production. Peruvian Pisco (which is different from Chilean Pisco) can be distilled only in copper-pot stills from the fermented juice of the fruit from eight particular grape varieties grown in specific coastal regions of Peru. It must be made from the juice (not the skins and other leftovers used in many other parts of the world to make brandy); it may not be diluted, so it must be distilled to proof; and it must be aged in nonreactive containers such as clay, glass, stainless steel or even plastic.
There are three styles of Pisco, which allows for enormous variations in flavor: Pisco Puro is made from a single grape variety, Pisco Acholado is made from a blend and Pisco Mosto Verde is made from grapes of a single variety that have not fully fermented. Aromatic Pisco Puro can be made from Italia, Albilla, Moscatel or Torontel grapes. Nonaromatic Pisco Puro is made from Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Mollar or Uvina grapes. All of these grapes are very sweet, which is important because the distillate cannot be mellowed by aging on wood.
Seattle-native Adam L. Weintraub is a professional photographer so fascinated and enamored with Pisco and its history that he co-owns three Pisco-centric bars in Peru — one in Lima, one in Cuzco and one in Arequipa. Called Museo del Pisco, each offers a full bar as well as about three dozen varieties of Pisco and serves food best described as Peruvian gastropub. The Peru guidebook I took on my recent trip there likes them so much, they are included as stops on walking tours. For years, Weintraub has been working on a gorgeous “photographic journey” of Pisco (with a few recipes) called “Pisco Patrimonio,” which will finally be for sale in September.
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Weintraub calls himself a Pisquero, “someone who is passionate and learned in the arts of Pisco.” Here in Seattle, Weintraub’s fellow Pisquero (and fellow Pisco evangelist) is bartender extraordinaire (and jack of many trades) Jay Kuehner. As Kuehner consults around the city, he leaves behind a trail of venues with eclectic bottle collections that always include interesting Pisco selections.
Jay Kuehner’s Chilcano de Pisco
Kuehner waxes poetic about the Chilcanos he’s enjoyed “at the Antigua Taberna Queirolo in Lima while arguing about César Vallejo; on the pier at Playa Makaha after trying to surf; and on the dusty road to Ica, where truck stops sold them with butifarra sandwiches.” Basically a Pisco and ginger, Kuehner says it’s “probably a riff on a century-old Italian Buon Giorno of grape brandy and ginger ale, from immigrants who settled in South America, and if you called it a Cuzco Mule or a Barranco Buck, it’d be all the rage.”
1¾ ounces Pisco (Acholado or Puro Quebranta, perhaps)
¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
½ ounce ginger syrup
Soda water or ginger beer (very dry, such as East Imperial or Fever Tree)
Amargo Chuncho (Peruvian bitters) or Angostura bitters
1. Put the Pisco, lime juice and ginger syrup in a shaker with ice.
2. Shake well, and strain into a chilled Collins glass.
3. Add fresh ice; top with soda water or ginger beer.
4. Add two dashes of bitters; garnish with a lime wheel and a thin slice of ginger.
To make your own ginger syrup, add 1 cup of washed ginger, chopped fine, to 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar. Simmer until the sugar has dissolved, let stand until cool, then strain and store in the refrigerator.