Basket of limes next to ice, sugar and foamy cocktail against black backdrop (photo by iStock)
Food + Drink

That’s the Spirit: Pisco

When you think of fermented grapes, wine may come to mind. However, grapes can also yield Pisco, a clear brandy with herbaceous, floral and fruity notes similar to tequila.

Pisco comes to the U.S. from two South American countries, Peru and Chile. The unique climate and landscape make for a unique terroir, with the rocky Andes Mountains, dry desert regions, rich sandy soil and the breeze rolling in from the Pacific, cooling the warm and arid climate. Wine enthusiasts know that environmental conditions are crucial for producing specific varietals, so pisco must be produced in one of Peru’s coastal valleys — Ica, Lima, Arequipa, Moquegua or Tacna — or in Chile’s Copiapó, Huasco, Elqui, Limarí or Choapa valleys. Grapes used to make pisco are extra sweet, lending themselves to the spirit’s freshness.

Per Peruvian law, pisco can only be distilled once, and you must use a copper pot still. Purity remains important in the process. No water can be added after distillation, a common process in producing other spirits like rum or vodka. But, what truly separates this grape spirit from brandy is that it is not aged in wood barrels. Instead, the spirit “rests” in steel, glass or clay containers. No flavor is picked up from the container, no water, no additives, just the pure flavor of sweet, fermented South American grapes.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you, though. There are a few classifications of pisco. Puro, the most popular in Peru, is made from a single type of grape and is distilled from a dry wine. Meanwhile, Mosto Verdes pisco draws from sweeter wine, before the wine has fully fermented. Lastly, Acholados uses a blend of two or more different grapes.

Across regions, things get a bit more complicated. In Chile, pisco can be distilled multiple times and can be stored in wood containers, leading to controversy from makers in both countries. Chilean officials do not label Peruvian pisco as “pisco,” and the same is true in reverse. In the U.S., we recognize both productions as pisco, though Peruvian brands are more common here.

Regardless of which classification or nationality you select, pisco’s flavor is complex and inspiring. The spirit can be sipped alone as an aperitif or can be a refreshing base for a variety of cocktails.

The spirit’s tart flavor but lighter tasting notes make it a complement to just about any flavor, so there are endless cocktails you can add to your repertoire using this spirit. A favorite for many is the pisco sour. All you need is lime juice, simple syrup and frothed egg whites to top it off.

For an adventurous drink, add absinthe and pineapple juice to the mix to create a pisco punch. For a twist on the highball, make the Chilcano — a drink with pisco, lime juice, ginger ale and angostura bitters. You can also pull together a Manhattan- style cocktail with pisco, vermouth, bitters and olives.

Proof Magazine is for Ohio spirit lovers. It is produced by Great Lakes Publishing three times a year. Dont miss an issue by subscribing to Ohio MagazineView a digital version of the Proof Magazine Spring 2024 edition here.