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The Secret History of Pisco: A Pisco Primer

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Photo by twohelmetscooking.

The oldest spirit in the Americas may just be the living legacy of the world’s first potable distillate. This same clear grape spirit from Peru also anchored our first tropical cocktail: yes, I’m referencing pisco and the pisco punch. Created and first prepared in secret at San Francisco’s iconic Bank Exchange Saloon in the 1880s, the pisco punch—made with both fresh pineapple and fresh-squeezed lime juice—paved the way for piña coladas, mai tais and margaritas as well as poolside debauchery and tiki attire for all. Fun!

What Is Pisco?

A simple explanation: pisco is the Peruvian grape spirit named after the port where it originated in the 16th century, just as cognac is the grape spirit of France, named for the riverside town from which it hails.

Most often, you’ll find notes of cocoa, almonds and bread when tasting pisco; however, as it’s a floral spirit, it can also have aromas of honey and jasmine, white pepper and mint. Being a clear spirit, pisco is infinitely mixable and boasts an amazing history, most of which is undiscovered by Americans.

How Pisco Is Produced

Producing pisco is a journey through both boutique wine and artisanal spirit culture. It requires harvesting both red and white grapes, then making amazing wine, then distilling it (but once) and finally, allowing the spirit to rest a while in neutral tanks. Don’t even think of adulterating the flavor with an oak chip, a citrus-peel infusion or even water. That’s right; Peruvians and pisco enduros—the term for lifelong fanatics and passionate pisco addicts—truly believe in the purity of distilled spirits and in the terroir of Peru.

Pisco is purer than vodka, with more kick than tequila. Why? It’s simple: pisco isn’t distilled repeatedly, nor is it filtered through charcoal as vodka may need to be, and as it’s bottled at proof—sin agua—resulting in a slightly higher alcohol content than its northern cousin (tequila), which accounts for its unmistakable kick.

Pisco Production on the Rise

New York Times journalist Florence Fabricant recently wrote that pisco is the fastest-growing spirit in the country. That’s an exciting fact for all who love cocktails.

Guillermo Toro-Lira, author and proprietor of Pisco Latin Lounge in San Francisco, said, of sharing pisco with the cocktail-curious, “I’ve actually converted bartenders who work at T.G.I.Friday’s and Applebee’s, to name a few, from vodka to pisco. Bartenders are always pleasantly surprised by pisco’s complexity and versatility for mixing.” Those bartenders are actually experiencing a bit of history: distillation of wine first began over a millenia ago and unaged grape-based spirits like pisco were the most common distilled tipple in Europe for many centuries.

If the New York Times is correct, and if Applebee’s and T.G.I.Friday’s may soon be serving pisco, somebody should call Peru—and tell them we’ll need a few more bottles of pisco this summer.

Editor’s Note: What’s your favorite way to drink pisco–straight up or in a cocktail?

  • Piscocurious

    Great article. Now we need a list of Pisco cocktails to try…

  • John McAward

    What about Chile’s pisco?  It’s also their national drink.  Chile had to fight an international trade court challenge from Peru which it won by changing the name of the town from La Union to Pisco Elqui.
    I lived in Chile for 4 years (1995-98) as the country director for the Peace Corps and had a Peace Corps Volunteer resident in the town working to improve municipal management.  My pisco sours were savored by my Chilean friends more so than the traditional pisco sour served in most Chilean homes.  I used a 750ml bottle of pisco with a 44% alcohol content and mixed it with 8oz of fresh lime juice, preferably key limes with half a cup of simple syrup.  I would then keep it in the freezer ready to serve at a moment’s notice.  Because of the alcohol content, it never froze, staying more like a slurpie when it was first poured.   Unlike the Chilean or Peruvian pisco sour, I did not add egg white before blending it (the foam takes up too much space in the glass) nor did I chill it in an ice shaker so as not to dilute the sour with water. 

    Pisco Elqui is a Chilean village (pueblo) in the commune of Paihuano, Elqui Province, Coquimbo Region. It is located in the Elqui Valley, 107 km east from La Serena, at about 1,300 metres above sea level.

    This was the area where pisco was distilled in the early history of Chile. The original name of the town was Las Gredas. It was later changed to La Unión. In 1936, the Law Decree 5,798 changed its name to Pisco Elqui to reinforce Chile’s claim to have rights over the alcoholic drink, pisco.

    Nearby is the Montegrande town, where the Chilean Nobel Prize laureate Gabriela Mistral, was born.
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  • Torres1718

    One of the Best  Pisco Sour that I tried was en el Anzuelo Fino Restaurant at 86-01 Northern Blvd. Queens, They have diferent flavor on it.

Duggan McDonnell owns and operates Cantina, the San Fran-centric cocktail lounge dedicated to Latin spirits and California cocktails. He operates Liquid Think Tank, a beverage consultancy, and co-founded San Francisco Cocktail Week and the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail. He also co-founded and serves as CEO and Master Blender of Campo de Encanto pisco, winner of the Ministry of Production’s Gran Medalla de Oro Best in Show gold medal (the highest honor for any pisco). Duggan’s many accolades include a Best Mixologist of the Year nomination at Tales of the Cocktail (twice) in New Orleans, and Leader of the American Cocktail Revolution from Food & Wine. A featured expert on the TV show “Great Cocktails,” Duggan also served as the spokesperson for the got milk? 2010 holiday cocktail TV campaign. He’s designed cocktails for the Sundance Film Festival and Aspen Food & Wine, and has consulted for spirits companies including Tequila Don Julio, Grey Goose Vodka and Cabana Cachaca.


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