If you have noticed Pisco popping up on menus around the city lately, you’re not the only one. This brandy form South America is distilled from wine or fermented fruit juice and makes a damn good cocktail.
A quick lesson: Pisco is made from eight different varietals and must be distilled for a minimum of three months in a copper pot still in one of the five coastal valleys of Peru or one of two regions in Chile and has a decidedly sweet flavor. It’s got a 38 to 48 percent ABV and no water is added in after distillation – unlike other spirits like whiskey, rum and vodka – and is classified as either Puro (made from a single grape), Acholado (blended from several varieties of grapes) or Mosto Verde, which is distilled before fermentation is finished and is a super sweet version.
But enough about the process – we care more about the drinks.
Many sip pisco neat or macerado, with a blend of fruits and herbs like strawberry, coconut, coca leaves and ginger. But the most well-known concoction is undoubtedly the Pisco Sour, made with pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, egg whites and bitters.
Other favorites: The El Capitan, basically a Manhattan using pisco instead of whiskey, the Chilcano with pisco, ginger ale and lime juice, and the Pisco Punch, a blend of pisco, pineapple and lime juice.
History of Pisco
Perue was producing wine for commerce as early as 1560. It was banned in 1595 by the Spanish Crown to protect the exports of Spain’s native wine industry. As further protectionist measures, the Crown forbade exportation of Peruvian wine to Panama in 1614 and Guatemala in 1615.
The distillation of the wine into Pisco began in earnest around the turn of the 17th century. Until the early 18th century, however, most aguardiente was still primarily used to fortify wine, in order to prevent its oxidation, rather than drunk on its own. In the 17th century production and consumption of wine and pisco were stimulated by the mining activities in Potosí, by then the largest city in the New World.
The Origin of Pisco
In 1572, Álvaro de Ponce founded the town of Santa María Magdalena in the valley of Pisco, which later changed it’s name to just Pisco. This town had a port which became the most important route for this liquor that carried its name. We also assume that the term “pisco” originated from Quechua. According to Lorenzo Huertas, a Peruvian historian, the production of pisco started at the end of the 16th century. Once the juice from the grapes was fermented, distilled and made into liquor, this was stored in clay jars called “piscos.” Johnny Schuler, proprietor of La Caravedo, where pisco Portón is now produced, says: “back then, people would say ‘20 piscos of liquor’ or ‘100 piscos of liquor’, referring to the clay jars.
In a document dated 1630, it says, “The valley of Pisco is still the most abundant with excellent wines in all Peru. There is one drink that competes with our Jerez (brandy) called ‘Pisco’ made from small grapes and it is one of the most exquisite liquors drank in the world.” There is no doubt that pisco was a favorite since its inception.
Around the mid-19th century, pisco arrived to the coast of San Francisco during the gold rush. Herbert Asbury wrote about the spirit in his book “The Barbary Coast,” an account about the life and excesses in this city between 1878 and 1880:
“One of the most famous bars was the Bank Exchange… a magnificently appointed saloon paved with marble and decorated with oil paintings valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars… The Bank Exchange was especially noted for Pisco Punch, invented by Duncan Nichol. The secret of its preparation died with Nichol, as he would never divulge it. Its base was Pisco. and the brandy itself, even without the other ingredients which made it into punch, must have been something to write home about”.
The Renaissance of Pisco
At the beginning of 2003, the Peruvian government decided to boost the growth and export of grapes, passing special laws in order to reach their objectives. In 1964 a law was passed establishing that the Executive branch should set the “conditions for which the production of a grape spirit should be controlled so that manufacturers could have the legal right to use the ‘pisco’ denomination, and their specific brand, with the location of the place where it was made.” Three decades later, in 1990, the term was declared a Peruvian denomination. What followed was an aggressive campaign to recover a tradition that had been lost in the darkness of the past centuries.
Nowadays, pisco is Peru’s flagship spirit and an important export. There remains a lot to be done, but the most important component is underway: the consumption of a pure spirit by a whole generation of mixologists in Peru and abroad that have discovered how versatile it can be for cocktail mixing and sipping.
EASY PISCO DRINKS
Recipe from NoMad, by Leo Robitschek
- 1 1⁄2 oz. Salers Aperitif
- 1 oz. pisco, preferably Macchu Pisco
- 3⁄4 oz. fresh pineapple juice
- 1⁄2 oz. cinnamon syrup
- 1⁄2 oz. fresh lime juice
- 8 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1⁄2 oz. mezcal, for topping
Photo Credit: Porton Pisco
- 2 ounces pisco
- 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 ounce pineapple simple syrup
- 3/4 ounce simple syrup
- 1 dash orange bitters
Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker with ice. Shake for 15 seconds. Double strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange twist.
The Pisco Sour
Photo Credit: Ivan Gavancho
- 2 ounces pisco
- 1 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1 ounce simple syrup
- 1 ounce egg white
- Angostura bitters
Add pisco, lime juice, simple syrup and egg white to cocktail shaker. Dry shake to emulsify egg white. Add six ice cubes and vigorously shake for 15 seconds. Double strain and garnish cocktail with dashes of Angostura bitters.
Pisco Bars in NYC
If you are looking to jump into some Pisco cocktails in New York City then the venues below are the places that will get you drinking the best pisco cocktails.
Peruvian Kitchen and Pisco Bar (Raymi)
This Pisco Bar is located on 24th between 5th and 6th, led by two brothers from Felipe and Jaime Torres (executive chefs.)
Amaru Pisco Bar – Jackson Heights
Is a Peruvian style tapas and pisco-focused bar in Jackson Heights. They feature 16 different kinds of Pisco, categorized by single varietals and blended versions. They serve everything from tropical-style cocktails, like their Alturas (Pisco, prickly pear puree, lemon, aloe vera,) and their Chilicano de Durazno (peach-infused Pisco, ginger liqueur, and club soda.) The venue is an industrial space with 30-foot ceilings, brick walls and exposed steel beams, where you can catch games projected on the wall in the industrial space.
Yerba Buena East Village / West Village
They have two locations, one in the East Village on Ave A/2nd St and one in Perry St & Greenwich (by the Meatball Shop.) You can pick from the Guavarita (pisco, guava nector, lemon juice and cordials.), Pisco Sour (Pisco, angostura bitters, organic egg white, fresh lime juice) or their Pisco Punch (pineapple-infused pisco, grapefruit, lime cordials and fresh lemon juice.)
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