Pisco fever

Here’s all you need to know about the Peruvian spirit that we may be seeing a lot more of in the coming months…

Just as all the colours of the spectrum can be found in what we commonly know as ‘white’, so too can all the character and colour of Peru be found in the crystal-clear drink that is known as pisco. Literally and metaphorically, pisco is the spirit of Peru, holding intonations and flavours of the exoticism and diversity of the country. (Of the 103 ecosystems on our planet, this land has 84, and of the 32 climates, Peru has 28).

Pisco, which has a 400-year history, is having a renaissance across the world right now, with the recent growth in sales hinting at a new-found appetite for innovation and quality.

For ease of comparison, the drink is regarded as a type of brandy, due to the process of grape juice being fermented into wine and then distilled into a spirit. This is where the comparison ends, though – pisco is not allowed, for instance, to be aged in barrels, a key component of the production of classic brandies.

Another rule is that all pisco must come from eight specific grape varieties, which are chosen for their sweetness. Quebranta is the most prolific of these grapes and it is as dense as it is popular, with the name ‘Quebranta’ translating literally as ‘break’, because of the bunches of grapes are often too heavy for the vine to support.

There are three types of pisco: puro, which is made with a pure distillate of one grape varietal; acholado, which is a blend of any and as many types of pisco in one bottle in varying proportions; and mosto verde, which, in similar fashion to Vinho Verde wines, the fermentation process has been interrupted to preserve some of the sugar content prior to distillation. This means that the spirit maintains a smooth, rich character on the palate to make this type of pisco a popular straight tipple. It is usually the most expensive of the pisco classifications as the process uses more grapes per litre and has a more complex journey to the final bottle.

There are over 500 official producers currently in operation, and they can be found in the coastal valleys of Arequipa, Ica, Lima, Moquegua and Tacna. These areas have a unique climate that protects and hydrates their vineyards and make for a hot, dry environment essential for the grapes.

The spirit is regarded as such a high quality and pure product that there is only one distillation (to achieve an ABV of between 38% and 48%) and absolutely nothing is added, a principle that sets it apart from many well-known spirits like gin where the ideal proof is achieved after distillation through the addition of water.

There is a minimum three-month resting period during the production process. Traditionally this would be in beautifully evocative clay botijas which are also eponymously known as ‘piscos’, but now, for volume and practicality, stainless steel or glass containers are often used. This last resting state is another point for customisation, dependent on the master distiller; the Sarcay brand of pisco will rest for nine months, for instance, and Pisco Porton for a year.

When the spirit is finally ready, drinking it is undertaken with a similar focus on taking your time. First comes admiration of the crystal clear quality – gently swirl the glass to see the ‘pisco tears’ fall. The longer they last, the better the pisco. Then, without getting too deep in the glass, take a quick whiff of the potent aromas; pisco has many notes, dependent on the grape variety and type of pisco, the characters of which are best left for you to discover unprompted. When you take your first smooth yet multifaceted sip, make it small and do not aerate it, but swirl it a little across your palate. After you’ve swallowed this mouthful, take a deep breath – this will reveal more of the aroma.

While most traditional pubs in the UK will not yet carry this spirit, premium cocktail bars do often stock it – and use it in creations such as the Pisco Sour and Chilcano. In Bristol, The Albatross Café on North Street does a pretty mean version of the former, and the Vittoria pub will whip you one up for a fiver between 4pm and 10pm. 

In a world where almost everyone is very familiar with wine, vodka, whisky, gin, brandy, rum and Tequila, it is interesting to find that such a deserving spirit with so much artisanal tradition has not yet reached the same prominence. Perhaps, along with the new world wine revolution, this ‘first spirit of the New World’ is about to have its own.

Follow Katy Davidson on Twitter @The_OysterLady