THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

Ever Heard Of Pisco?

Well you soon might as the International Wine and Spirit Record (IWSR) has released a bullish report about its prospects. Pisco is a Muscat white wine distillate that has been produced in Chile and Peru since colonial times. It comes from southern Peru and northern Chile while in Bolivia a similar product is known as Singani.

Shunned for years by bartenders as being little better than firewater, aficionados are now praising the qualities of the upper end pisco as it is nicely aromatic, mellow in the mouth and very mixable hence the popularity of pisco sour. This cocktail is said to have been invented by a Lima bartender who ran out of whisky for his whisky sour but the Chileans vehemently disagree citing a book dating from 1822 which mentions something very similar. Pisco is shaken with ice, lemon juice, sugar syrup with egg white and a dash of bitters splattered over the froth.

The famous Pisco sour

Due to the albumen, making a satisfactory pisco sour at home is often not very successful so during Covid sales took a big hit as bars were closed. Looking at the past five years sales have only increased by 0.5% according to IWSR but have bounced back lately with Latin American dineries springing up in larger cities. Mixologists are apparently experimenting with ‘moving the sour on a bit’ and some bars are promoting sipping it neat like a malt whisky.

At Pisco Bar Oroya, in Madrid’s Edition hotel consumers can explore the 20‐strong selection of Peruvian piscos via tasting flights. Waqar in Chile has created what it claims is the first of its kind; a smoked grape pisco called Black Heron. There is a Peruvian Bailey’s in the form of a pisco crema made by blending pisco with sugar, fruit concentrate and cream. In Chile I am told you can get pisco ice cream and in Peru the fourth Sunday in July is National Pisco Day!

“Pisco is an amazingly versatile liquid, with interesting complexity and a lot of soul,” says Sany Bacsi from Coya the UK based Peruvian restaurant group. “The category is showing a lot of innovation, with many new piscos and new varieties being launched but we still need more bars and restaurants to put pisco on their menus.”

The Andes mountains tower above the vines

The IWSR reckons the untapped potential of the category lies in its range of grape varieties as well as alcoholic strengths. Pisco is still a niche category, very much focused on the Quebranta grape variant but other permitted varieties, such as Torontel and Italia can enhance the aroma and flavour and there are increasingly single variety piscos to try and all of which go towards driving a price premium.

Although well over 90% of pisco is drunk where it is made, the product is premiumising and more is being exported from South America but how is it made and what makes it interesting and unusual? Some folk think it is made from grape pomace like grappa but in fact it comes from a potable wine so pisco is a type of brandy.

It did not take the Spanish colonisers long to bring over vine cuttings and vineyards were well established by the 1560s. Distilling followed not long after as the climate does not lend itself to making table wines. There is a 1613 record of casks of Aguardiente (literally burning water) and Peru’s oldest producer Hacienda La Caravedo has bits of its buildings dating from 1684 making that the oldest distillery in the Americas. The very hot days produce grapes high in sugar while the cool nights do tend to keep the acidity quite high. The plants are sustained by subterranean aquifers of glacial melt water from the Andes. The dry wines produced are better suited to distilling than drinking.

Learning how to make pisco sours at Lima Gourmet Tours

All was well when both Chile and Peru were part of Spain’s Viceroyalty of New Spain but Napoleon unsettled the Spanish throne which loosened its grip on its colonies and led to demands for independence and bloody insurrections. Peru was free of Spain by 1821 but the Royalists battled on in Chile until 1826 and the nations went their separate ways. Formalising the production of pisco followed different paths too with each nation saying they invented it although there is no doubting that the town of Pisco is in Peru! The Chileans however say that the word pisco is from an old local word meaning ‘bird’. Such are the national rivalries that although Chile is the biggest market for Peruvian pisco it is not allowed to be sold as such!

Alembic stills in Chile and at South America’s oldest distillery in Peru

Chilean rules were codified in 1931 defining the mode of production, the grape varieties allowed and the regions of growing and production (Atacama and Coquimbo only). Brandies made elsewhere must be called Aguardiente. Four categories are detailed; Pisco Corriente, ‘Tradicional’ or Seleccio at 30%ABV, ‘Especial’ (35%), ‘Pisco Reservado‘ (40%) and ‘Gran Pisco‘ over 43%. Grape varieties are also established; the main five ones are Muscat Rosata, Moscatel de Alejandría, Pedro Jimenez, Austrian Moscatel and Torontel,. Eight other varieties are allowed in smaller proportions but are all defined. All these varieties are characterised by their high content in terpenols such as linalool, nerol and geraniol which are bound as glycosides in the wine but are released to give the distillate its distinctive character.

After maceration the juice is kept with its solids at controlled temperature (17°C – 22°C) which helps extract more aromatic compounds before pectinase enzymes and SO2 are added, the solids separated and the must transferred to 2500hL tanks with industrial yeast. Fermentation takes about 12 days at around 17oC to retain the volatiles yielding a 14%ABV wine. Distillation is a batch affair in 1.5-2.5m3 copper alembics heated by steam coils with plate rectification columns. The spirit can be redistilled but care must be taken if aromatic character is to be retained.

The spirit is left to harmonise for 60 days in stainless tanks for the 30% pisco and then transferred to tuns made from the local Rauli wood, which is a local evergreen beech (Nothofagus) or else the ubiquitous bourbon cask. The Rauli is said to give a very pale lemony pink hue to the top brands. Maturation will be up to a year. Six month piscos can be labelled ‘guarda’ and twelve month as ‘envejecido’. No sugar or colouring is allowed before bottling only water to adjust the %ABV.

Fermentation vats and a Falca still in Peru (Photos from the Visit Peru website)

Rules across the border into Peru to the north are very different. Regulations constraining the distiller means prices are higher and some think Peruvian pisco is a superior product. It cannot be aged at all, it must all be produced as ‘transparent’ and kept for a full 90 days in an inert container and certainly not a barrel. The spirit can only be distilled once and you cannot add water after distillation so it needs to come off the still between 38-48%. This means the distiller not only has to control the cuts to divert unwanted compounds before and after the heart but his flexibility is much reduced by having to maximise the heart %ABV. The Visit Peru website helpfully tells us that it takes 8kg of grapes to make one litre of pisco liquor.

Peruvian American sisters Melanie & Lizzie Asher founded their Macchu Pisco in 2006

Again pisco can only come from five departments and Ica is the most productive, so that differences in soil and climate between these regions result in piscos with different characters from one region to the next. The original black grape from the Canary Islands, now much adapted and called Quebranta which means ‘tamed or broken’ is still the most grown variety along with Mollar, Uvina and Negra Criolla which make up a quartet known as the non- aromatics. Then there are another four; Italia, Muscatel, Torontel and Albilla known as the aromatics. There is a speciality called Moste Verde which directly translates from Spanish as ‘green must’ which are piscos distilled from partially fermented must so still retain some of its natural sugars and different volatiles.

Burros or bolijitas were traditionally used for both fermentation and storage. A US visitor shows how to move one.

Another archaic survivor is the burro (donkey) where fermentation and storage can take place. These pisqueras or bolijitas are made from earthenware and make grand displays for visitors but they are seldom used in production these days. Flat topped falca stills are much in evidence in Peru; here the boiler and a space beneath for the fire are encased in concrete. There is no swans neck and lyne arm for reflux simply a tube from the top gently sloping to a condensing worm in a large water bath.

In 1889, Rudyard Kipling described the taste of pisco as “shavings of cherub’s wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, red clouds of sunset and fragments of lost epics by dead poets”. Others writers of the day said “…. it tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer!” You can make your own mind up. So look out for pisco and if you want to try some at home, Masters of Malt on line has 28 of them.

A selection of three Peruvian piscos on the left and three from Chile