John B. Reyna
The Great Pisco Debate
Updated: May 29, 2020
Now heading to South America, we will learn about another grape brandy, pisco. Pisco has been around since the 1600s. The Spanish settlers in South America decided to start making their own brandy using their knowledge and traditions in tandem to wine making. Legally, the brandy must come from either Chile or Peru to be called pisco. However, each country has their own rules about the process, what grapes to use, and their own day to celebrate the pisco sour.
To this day, there has been much debate between Chile and Peru - where pisco originated, how it should be made, and who created the famous pisco sour.
Based off a classic sour recipe, the earthy and aromatic pisco complements the sweet and citrus flavors. Recorded in different forms from both countries in the 1800s, adding to the rivalry, Peru has the first undebatable record of what was called “cocktail” on a pamphlet in 1903. The modern recipe was made world famous when an American opened a bar in Lima, Peru, in 1916 introducing the pisco sour to the Peruvian upper-class and travelers.
John and I started this blog post with a taste test of three piscos on their own:
1. Capel Chilean pisco, 40% ABV -$18
2. Intipalka Acholado pisco, 42% ABV - $27
3. Caravedo Mosto Verde pisco, 43% ABV - $44
Here in DFW, Peruvian piscos are more abundant and pricier. While I didn’t love the Chilean pisco, it tasted more like a vodka to me, I will continue to seek out a better representation from Chile. The Acholado was floral and complex, making a good substitution for gin. The Mosto Verde was incredibly smooth and flavorful. I could drink it on its own or with just about anything. A perfect example is the El Capitan, which is a play on the Manhattan with pisco substituting for whiskey. Yum!
Let's go through a few differences.
Peru exports 3 times as much pisco as Chile. The United States is the number two importer of Peruvian pisco after... you guessed it, Chile. Want to add insult to injury, Peru does not allow Chilean pisco to enter the country.
Peru averages only 0.5 liters per capita/year of pisco consumed. John and I drink more than that! Though whiskey and rum are also popular in Peru.
Peruvian pisco can be made from any number of 8 different grapes, which can be blended to balance out the more aromatic ones. The grapes go through 7 to 10 days of natural fermentation before being pot distilled one time to 38-48% ABV to retain the flavor of the grapes. Then the spirit must sit in clay, steel, or glass vessels for three months before being bottled. There is no barrel-aging or dilution of any type allowed. Peru has stricter rules than Chile, focusing on the floral characteristics of the grapes and a more uniformed distilling process. Still, the result of these rules is that the consumer benefits by knowing what he/she is going to get.
There are three styles out there:
1. Puro –100% a single grape varietal, often named after the variety, Quebranta, Italia, etc.
2. Acholodo – A blend of grape varieties
3. Mosto Verde - Made from partially fermented musts (freshly crushed juice which includes skins, stems, and seeds) which requires far more fruit
Peruvian Pisco Sour
2oz Peruvian pisco
3/4oz lime juice*
3/4oz simple syrup (Teakwood Tavern's Recipe)
1 egg white
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients except for the egg white and bitters into a shaker—then add the egg white but not the bitters. Perform a dry shake: close shaker without ice, and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. After the dry shake, open the shaker, add ice, and shake again. Strain the drink through a fine mesh-strainer into a coupe glass. Dash the bitters on top. Make a design if inclined.
*Some recipes use lemon, key lime, or any mix of the three. From my reading, 100% lime seemed like the most authentic
Though Chile is the #1 importer of Peruvian pisco, it must be labeled as distilled grape alcohol. It makes sense that Chile needs more pisco since your average Chilean drinks 3 liters or 6 times as much pisco as your average Peruvian. Chile also produces 3 times as much pisco, but keeps most of it for themselves.
Chilean pisco can be made from up to 13 grapes (though much overlap with Peru) grown in dryer conditions. Chilean pisco can be distilled as many times as the producer likes, driving up the alcohol while removing impurities, flavor, and aroma. They can they be aged in barrels giving them a golden color and flavors of vanilla and maple, like Cognac. Finally, water can be added back in to bring down the ABV to to as low as 30%. Much looser rules gives the producers the ability to experiment, but you may lose some of aromatics, which is what makes pisco such a unique brandy.
Chilean Pisco Sour
2oz Chilean Pisco
3/4oz lemon juice*
3/4oz simple syrup (Teakwood Tavern's Recipe)
Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into a rocks glass over ice.
*The most authentic citrus used in Chile is the pica lime. Since we cannot find them in the US, lemons are used as a substitute
Which is better?
To me, it’s more about getting the word out about pisco, and everyone trying each on their own. I’m a sucker for an egg white, but I understand why some people may prefer the Chilean version.
Way to make it through all this sour history between Peru and Chile! You deserve a pisco beverage. Cheers!