Essential Guide to Pisco

There’s more to Pisco, the grape spirit from South America than what goes into a Pisco Sour.

Essential Guide to Pisco

In this Essential Guide to Pisco, we explain what is Pisco, the difference between Peruvian and Chilean Pisco, which grape varietals can be used, the various types of Pisco, how Pisco is classified and how to drink Pisco.

What is Pisco

Pisco is a type of brandy or grape eau de vie produced in Peru and Chile using different methods that result in totally different products which are specified by each country’s specific denomination of origin. Peruvian Pisco adheres to a 400 year old traditional artisanal small batch method of production while Chilean Pisco is usually produced in large quantities for the mass market.

This article describes in detail the origin and production process for Peruvian Pisco, the national spirit of Peru.

What does the Word ‘Pisco’ Mean

The name Pisco comes from the Peruvian port city which bears the same name. Established more than 500 years ago, the port of Pisco was an important centre for the export of Peruvian wine and grape-based spirits. However, the origin of the word comes from the native Quechua word pisqu, which means “little bird”.

Peruvian Pisco Regulations

Peruvian Pisco is governed by strict rules of the Denomination of Origin. These established the legal standards that make Peruvian Pisco one of the purest spirits in the world and the export of Peruvian wine and grape base spirits during the time of the Spanish rule of the Viceroyalty of Peru.

  • must be produced in one of five coastal regions of Peru: Ica, Lima, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna
  • must be distilled from wine and not from pomace (marc) or solid remains of grapes.
  • undergoes natural fermentation, which can lead to slight variations from year to year
  • can only be distilled once to retain flavour and not strip character and stay true to the grape
  • no additives are allowed to ensure the characteristics of the grapes are maintained
  • must be distilled to proof, between 38 to 48% ABV which means it can’t be cut with water after distillation
  • no barrel aging is allowed as it is viewed as additives from the sugar and tannins of the wooden barrel
  • must be rested in stainless steel, copper, glass, ceramic or food grade plastic containers for at least 3 months before bottling

Chilean Pisco

Chilean Pisco is often made from three grape varietals (Moscatel, Pedro Jimenez and Torontel) with Moscatel being the most common. It can be distilled multiple times, may be cut with water and can be barrel aged in oak.

Pisco Grapes

Peruvian Pisco can be made from eight types of grapes divided into the two broad categories of “aromatic” and “‘non-aromatic”.

Non-Aromatic Grapes:

  • Quebranta: intense and complex with faint aroma of reeds or hay with very subtle aromas of fruits
  • Negra Criolla: not as sweet as Quebranta or Mollar, it has aromas of freshly cut grass mixed with flavours of fruits, honey, coffee and chocolate
  • Mollar: grown in very small quantities in Peru, it typically exhibits flavours of apple, banana and pear
  • Uvina: a hybrid grape variety, it produces a Pisco that is well structured, with high sugar content and slight astringency

Aromatic Grapes:

  • Italia: the most aromatic of the eight Pisco grapes with muscatel-like aromas and bright floral and citrus flavours
  • Moscatel: grown in small quantities, it has a melon-like juiciness or a lemony brightness with flavours of peach, apple and rose water
  • Torontel: known for its expressive and intense aroma, it is similar to the Italia grape but with more finesse in its flavours of fruit, flowers and honey
  • Albilla: flavours reminiscent of banana, rose petals and black tea

Pisco Classification

  • Pisco Puro – made entirely from a single grape varietal, distilled when the wine is dry and the yeast has consumed all the sugar. This is the most popular Pisco in Peru.
    • Example: Rich and earthy, Cuatro G’S Quebranta is made from the non aromatic single varietal Quebranta grape, a complex and flavourful spirit that provides the perfect base for the traditional Pisco Sour, Chilcano and Pisco tonic.
  • Pisco Acholado – a blend of two or more different varietals and often has Quebaranta. It can made from two or more Puros, or two or more Mosto Verde, but never both.
    • Example: Pancho Fierro Acholado, a blend of Quebranta, Italia and Torontel with grape-like characteristics and delicate flavours of white chocolate, almond, vanilla custard and white pepper. Great with soda water or in bright, fruity cocktails.
  • Mosto Verde – means “green must’ and refers to a Pisco that is distilled from a partially fermented young wine. This style of Pisco tends to have a greener, richer flavour, a velvety texture and a sweeter mouth feel.
    • Example: Pisco Portón Mosto Verde Quebranta is a super premium mosto verde style with 100% non-aromatic Quebranta grapes. Its velvety, creamy texture and layers of dried fruits, fresh flowers and vanilla flavours make it a perfect choice to sip after dinner, or mixed into a cocktail.

How to Drink Pisco

With the premium styles of Pisco favoured by Peruvians as a neat sipping drink, Pisco also forms an excellent base for cocktails and mixed drinks. Use it in a Pisco Sour, Chilcano, Pisco Punch or in classic cocktails such as the Martini, Negroni, Mojito and Margarita.

Pisco Holidays

Such is the importance of Pisco to both Peru and Chile, both countries have public holidays to honour their national drink. Peru celebrates National Pisco Sour Day (El Dia del Pisco Sour) on the first Saturday in February, Peruvian El Dia del Pisco on fourth Sunday in July while Chile celebrates Dia Nacional del Pisco Chileno on 15 May.

In partnership with The Pisco People.

Photo Credit: The Pisco People, used with permission.

Essential Guide to Pisco was last modified: February 24th, 2017 by Corinne Mossati
Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is the Founder/Editor of Cocktails & Bars and popular online magazine Gourmantic. She is named in the Australian Bartender Magazine Top 100 Most Influential List, is a member of The World’s 50 Best Bars Academy who judges the World’s 50 Best Bars. She has also judged the Australasian Whisky Awards and various national cocktail competitions. Read the full bio here.