In the last year or so we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of the pisco category, not only within professional circles but also amongst the general public. This is largely due to the growing trend of people ordering more savoury, sour drinks – with the pisco sour being a key player in this phenomenon. Additionally, companies such as The Pisco People and others have helped immensely with bringing the spirit into focus within the Australian bar market.
Today we’re going to be covering the basics of what exactly it is, how it’s made, how you can use it in cocktails, and why you should care…
Pisco Production and Varietals
Pisco – put simply – is a grape based white spirit that’s been distilled only a single time and has been produced entirely within the borders of Peru (or Chile). Much like tequila and scotch whisky, pisco needs to be made in a specific way and meet certain criteria. Some of the main requirements for the Peruvian definition are included in the definition above, however there are some very specific requirements.
There are 8 different varieties of grape that can be used in a legal pisco – each of which imparts a unique flavour characteristic to the drink. The way that these grapes are used defines what kind of pisco is being made. With puro containing one variety of grape, acholado containing two or more, and mosto verde (green must) being distilled from a young wine. The use of grapes gives the spirit a rich velvety texture and aroma, which makes it ideal for drinking either by itself or over a large ice block. Perfect for a humid afternoon!
Pisco can be distilled using either a pot or column process, with many producers favouring the pot approach for the richer, oilier final product. Since pisco can only be distilled once, distillers place a great deal of effort into ensuring that their process is perfectly consistent and able to yield a high quality product. There is little margin for error.
Whilst the name is most commonly associated with Peru, it’s also produced in the winemaking regions of Chile. The Chilean version is relatively similar to it’s Peruvian counterpart. However, Chilean distillers tend to favour the column distillation approach. The appellation of origin for pisco is still hotly contested the world over. Despite spite of the fact that Peru wishes the claim exclusive rights t0 the name, many countries still allow the Chilean interpretation of the spirit to also make use of the name.
Pisco in Cocktails and Mixers
Now that we have the basics out of the way, we can start thinking of creative ways to use it! Pisco is a wonderfully versatile spirit with a bright zesty flavour profile, often possessing light floral or vegetal notes. This allows it to be used in a multitude of ways and prevents it from being boxed in conceptually when making cocktails.
Some of my favourite ways to use this robust spirit are in simple twists on pisco sours and other classic cocktails. These can be made much more interesting and complex with the simple inclusion of botanicals that work well with the base spirit. A couple of my favourite additives are tea leaves, lavender and violet. Although pisco is a banging cocktail ingredient, it’s also nice to enjoy it with a mixer such as soda water or ginger beer. The latter is actually a crowd favourite in Peru and is called a Chilcano.
It’s worth emphasising that since pisco is based on grapes, it can be fairly easily substituted into many cocktail recipes or mixer combinations that would typically use brandy or cognac. With this said, a couple of minor tweaks will need to take place, but I’ll leave that (the fun part) up to you…
Hopefully this gives you some idea of what pisco is and how it can be used. I think you’ll find that it’s a refreshingly different spirit that can be used as an alternative to other white spirits in a number of common recipes. If you need inspiration I’d recommend checking out the catalogue and recipes available on The Pisco People website. It’s a good starting point at the very least.
Let me know what you come up with in the comments below!