Pisco: The Brandy You're Probably Not Drinking...Yet
When it comes to happy hour, are you tired of the usual wine or beer? Perhaps it’s time to savor one of the most popular drinks in Latin America.
For years, Chile and Peru have debated which was the first to invent pisco. In the United States, the grape brandy that was reportedly described by poet Pablo Neruda as “a million rays of sunshine in a single drop” seemed to be little-known — at least until now.
“Many pisco makers are relatively small, artisan enterprises, and may not have the resources to make a big splash in the US market," explains Kara Newman, spirits editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, on why the brandy isn’t as widely recognized in the United States as gin or vodka.
“But we’re already starting to see more pisco in bars and stores, and it’s picking up traction,” she adds. “Almost everyone has heard of a pisco sour cocktail at this point. That’s just the start.”
The history of this beverage’s rise to fame is a muddled one. One historian connects pisco to Peru, whereas another claims a 1542 map points its origins to Chile. And it may have played a significant role in America.
“Pisco played a big part in the west coast drinking scene for at least half a century prior to Prohibition,” explains Scott Goldman, importer of Chilean-based Pisco Control C. “Prohibition took the wind out of its sail though — and unlike most spirit categories that came out of prohibition as a strong, if not stronger, pisco has remained dormant in American until recent years.”
Today, pisco is slowly making a comeback at bars and can make a drink both refreshing and potent. It can also be savored alone as if it were a fine wine or even enjoyed like party-starting tequila. It’s this versatility that has made it a new favorite among bartenders looking to shake things up.
“Pisco is clean and crisp in a simple cocktail, with Coke, on the rocks, or with a bit of lime juice,” explains Mindy Trafman, General Manager of Chicago’s Lush Wine & Spirits, which she says has been seeing a bigger pisco demand. “It is also savory, briny, and a little a spicy. It blends well and can be muddled with fresh garden herbs or liven up a more exotic cocktail made with mango or passionfruit puree. Serving pisco with elderflower liqueur at parties in a large punch bowl is also a big hit. It’s even being mixed in wine cocktails. The possibilities are endless.”
Another perk pisco offers? Its price tag. A variety of brands can be found for both budget-friendly consumers and for those willing to splurge for less than $50. And one restaurateur says more establishments are willing to not only offer pisco for their patrons, but also educate them on the libation.
“You’re most likely to find a pisco cocktail in any establishment that takes their cocktail program seriously,” says Piero Rodriguez, general manager for New York City’s Raymi, which is described as a bar dedicated to the beverage. “Pisco makes great cocktails due to its ability to absorb flavors and it compliments most mixers.”
What’s the difference between Chilean and Peruvian pisco? Both countries do offer their own variety of pisco grapes, but it also depends on who you ask.
“Chilean piscos can be aged in French or American oak (barrels). They can be double or even triple distilled,” says Goldman. “Even if Chileans and Peruvians used the same grapes, the flavor would not be the same. The Chilean skies are some of the clearest in the world…as a result, Chilean grapes don’t grow under the same conditions as in Peru.”
“Peruvians like to drink their pisco straight up without mixing,” adds Rodriguez. “Peruvians believe pisco should be pure and not compromising without adding other methods to it, like the Chileans do.”
No matter how you shake it or stir it, experts all agree that you can expect to see more pisco appearing on cocktail menus over the next couple of years.
And we’ll drink to that.