Sales of Pisco, though small, are growing; it’s time for retailers to take notice of this white brandy of South America. Although Peru and northern Chile are the biggest producers of this unique brandy, which is said to have originated in the 16th Century, some is also produced in Argentina and Brazil. Pisco takes its name from the port in southern Peru where it is shipped. Some say it is named for a small local bird.
Pisco from Peru is distilled from newly fermented, predominantly Muscat grapes, in copper, or stainless steel, pot stills. Prior to distillation, the fermented wine is matured from a minimum of three months to almost a year, in neutral containers such as large clay or earthenware jars. Aging may also be done in glass or stainless steel, again neutral, to avoid any influence on the flavor of the original grape. Consequently, oak aging is not permitted. Pisco is bottled directly from the still, at proofs ranging from 76? to 96?, and may not be reduced with water. It is consumed quite young and only lightly aged.
Most Peruvian Pisco is distilled from Ica River Valley grapes which are divided into two classes ‘ aromatic and non-aromatic. Aside from Muscats, the aromatic grapes, which have a floral character, include Italia, Torrontes (Torontel) and Albilla. The non-aromatic grapes include Negro Corriente (Common Black), Quebranta, Mollar and Ubina (Uvina). The brandy produced from these latter grapes is very neutral, and more like a vodka.
Chile, on the other hand, makes a Pisco that is mostly distilled in a continuous column still, although some boutique distillers use the pot still. Several variations of Muscats are used, plus Torrontes and Pedro JimÃ©nez. Blends must be made from these three varieties only. The distillate is aged in oak casks (not neutral), where it picks up color. Chilean Piscos range from Regular, which has a low proof of 60? to 70?, achieved by reducing the distillate with water (permitted in Chile), to the 80? Control, to the Great, which can go from 86? to 100? and has the most wood flavors.
I recently tasted three Peruvian Piscos, which were all different. Two sisters, Melanie and Lizzie Asher, produce and market La Diablada Pisco, made from a blend, or acholado, of grapes; and Machu Pisco, made from a puro, or single, grape variety. I found the La Diablada 2005 to be extremely aromatic ‘ a veritable Gewurztraminer of Piscos. The wine is made from four grapes: Quebranta, Italia, Moscatel and Torontel, all rested individually before blending. The final blend is then ‘rested’ for another year before distillation. Because there can be annual vintage variation, this Pisco carries a vintage date on the back label.
The Ashers’ Machu Pisco is distilled from 100% Quebranta. It is less floral, and more delicate, with soft, grapey notes and a touch of orange peel. The mouthfeel is quite smooth. Each is 40%.
A premium Pisco that I also tasted was PortÃ³n’s Hacienda la Caravedo. The bottle has a window that looks at the oldest distillery in the Americas, built in 1684. The master distiller, Johnnie Schuler, has created a Pisco mosto verde. This means that the sugar in the three grapes used, the non-aromatic Quebranta, with some aromatic Torontel and Albilla, is not totally fermented out, and some residual sugar is in the grape must. This Pisco comes off the still at a higher 43%, without any water reduction, according to Peruvian law. The flavor is dry and spicy, with hints of citrus. A versatile spirit, it has its own grape character, yet can be very mixable.
Incidentally, there is an ongoing debate between Peru and Chile over who is the rightful owner of the Pisco name. This is still in the courts while a compromise is being sought.