The clear distillate known as pisco hails from the tropical continent of South America. Produced by both Peru and Chile, it is an aromatic and complex type of brandy. It tends to be clear and has a rather high proof (from 60 on up to 100 proof) and brings with it an aromatic bouquet with either hint of sweetness or for some, a more herbaceous hit.
It’s been around for ages, but in more recent years with the boom of craft cocktails, pisco has gained notoriety mostly in the form of the Pisco Sour or Pisco Punch. Another thing that’s been around for ages is the rivalry between Peru and Chile over pisco. Both countries claim that it’s theirs, a feud that will likely continue to perpetuate for all of time. They’re similar in that pisco from Peru and from Chile both start life as grape juice that is fermented into wine, then put through a still to create liquor.
After that though, things get a bit different and then the gloves come off with Peru and Chile chomping at the bit to get bragging rights for pisco. So, who wins?
History of Pisco
It all started back in 1879. The War of the Pacific was underway with Chile fighting against Bolivia and Peru. A portion of Peruvian territory was transferred to Chile in 1929 which added more fuel to the fire. Then with the production of pisco, both countries were at odds which are still very much felt today. When Peruvian pisco is exported to Chile, it must have ‘pisco’ removed from the label. While Chile produces more pisco than Peru, Peru counters with its more stringent regulations for a higher quality of pisco.
With regards to the esteemed Pisco Sour, the drink is noted from the 1700’s. While there are always disagreements with cocktail origins, experts can completely agree that the modern version of this cocktail as it is known today was fashioned in the early 1920’s in Lima, Peru. It is said that Victor Vaughen Morris, an American bartender, opened a bar which was a hub for the upper class and other foreigners. The cocktail in question was supposedly perfected by a Peruvian bartender named Mario Bruiget. But Chile counters this, arguing that Elliot Stubb created it in a port city called Iquique in 1872, a city that once belonged to Peru.
Maybe the best way to be fair is to just bury the hatchet with a cocktail or two. Peru and Chile won’t budge on the subject of pisco, so the best option is to sample both and draw your own conclusions. Choices are ideal in life. We have more than one pizza place in town yet you can probably start your own war at home arguing over which one has the best pizza. It’s the same with Peruvian and Chilean pisco.
In Peru, pisco is created from wine with a low alcohol content using up to eight different varietals. The grapes that are used are grown in areas of high humidity along the cost. The young wine is bottled right out of the still. With strict laws mandating one distillation, the flavors and aromas become more prominent. This means that Peruvian piscos have very distinctive fruity aromas and flavors.
The pisco in Peru is stored in vessels of glass, stainless-steel, or copper to age for three months. It’s not an aging process, but rather, a process for a margination of sort. The final product is either clear or slightly yellowish in color. Once it’s ready to bottle up, Peruvian laws forbids the addition of water to squelch the alcohol content. Good thing too. The more potent, the better!
On the downside, the strict laws for pisco production in Peru do limit creativity for the producers. However, that’s the trade-off for having consistently high-quality and natural pisco.
And now for Chile. The biggest difference is that the Chilean producers of pisco grow the grapes in very low humidity in desert-like conditions. While Peru’s laws restrict producers to only use eight varietals, Chilean producers can choose from 13 of them. Chilean producers also have much more versatility. They can use semi-fermented, youthful wines like the Peruvians do or they can use fully-fermented wine, of which the latter is most often chosen. Additionally, these may be infused with the addition of other fruits.
Distillation in Chile is different too. Producers here can put the pisco through as many distillation as they like. While undergoing multiple distillations removes impurities, it also takes away from the aroma and flavor. But on the other side of it, the alcohol content rises. They can also age their pisco in wooden barrels so it becomes golden or even amber with hints of characteristics it absorbs from the wood. Think vanilla or maple syrup. Aged pisco from Chile would be a delight to cognac drinkers.
Another crucial difference in Chilean pisco production is that the addition of water is permitted at the finishing stage to lower the alcohol content. This gives you a broader range of choices when choosing a pisco to try.
And the Winner is…
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to choose a country to side with in the pisco wars. Each of them have their own advantages. It’s advisable to try both and find what works for you. As mentioned in the pizza example, some pisco aficionados claim Peru is best while others are team Chile all the way.
The best way to get acquainted with pisco is to do a straight tasting. Even among producers in each country, pisco can be notably different. Some are so sublime as-is, you needn’t mix them with a single thing. If you’re a traditionalist, you might find Peru’s stringent production qualities more in line with your taste buds. But if you like to explore, you may very well find the Chilean pisco more up your alley. You may even like both depending on your mood. The fun part of course is exploring. If we’re focusing on trends though, we may just see Chilean pisco come out ahead. The reason is that they’re able to tinker with the tastes and experiment, much like traditional winemakers. While Peru will always be synonymous with quality, Chile seems to be breaking new grounds, which will bode very well for the bespoke cocktail movement that has been trending over the last few years.