Grape Expectations for Peruvian Pisco
Discover what’s trending with the brandy-like spirit from Peru, both in the glass and the shaker.
Author (and winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature) Rudyard Kipling called pisco “the noblest and most beautiful product of our era.” He went on to say he theorized it’s made from “little cherub wings, the glory of a tropical sunrise, the red of sunset clouds and fragments of ancient epics written by the great fallen masters.” That romantic, idealized version of the spirit may be a bit over the top, but it also kind of sums up the optimism of producers and bartenders right now. Peruvian pisco is hot, its use goes way beyond the Pisco Sour, and it’s time to squash notions that it’s not as “serious” as other types of spirits.
Because pisco is often unfairly lumped into the same category as low-end vodka and rum, there is a price-to-quality assumption among consumers that’s just not quite accurate. “A common misconception about Peruvian pisco is that it’s just a strong neutral spirit and it should be inexpensive,” notes Diego Loret de Mola, founder of BarSol Pisco. “Like winemaking, terroir, weather, altitude and geography have tremendous influence in the tasting profile of a pisco.” Keep in mind: for Peruvian pisco, grapes are the only permitted ingredient. It’s naturally fermented and it can’t be brought to proof with water, adulterated with any flavoring, or even aged in wood. Its very methods of production mean it feasibly can’t – and shouldn’t – have a cheap price tag.
Most bartenders and consumers view pisco as a mixing spirit, but in Peru, it’s also quite often sipped by itself. Loret de Mola points out that piscos distilled from fully fermented wine are big, round and lush; they can hold their own mixed with other ingredients, but some prefer them solo. However, mosto verde piscos – those distilled from partially fermented wines – make for fantastic solo sipping. “They are very aromatic on their expression, and on the mouth the texture is much softer, lighter, delicate, and smoother, yet the aromas and flavors are extremely expressive, very lingering with a long finish.” BarSol Mosto Verde Italia and BarSol Mosto Verde Torontel are aromatic in the glass, while BarSol Mosto Verde Quebranta (made from a non-aromatic varietal) is much more subtle.
Lingering over a pisco that’s a puro (single grape varietal) versus an acholado (a blend of two or more grape varietals) does create a different tasting experience, says Pisco Portón master distiller Johnny Schuler. While puros allow one grape’s character to shine through, acholados “provide a complexity and flavor profile that create a unique sensory experience for the palate.” He recommends Pisco Portón Mosto Verde, which is made by partially fermenting the must (the freshly pressed grape juice). “[This] leads to more flavor and aroma in every bottle and a true expression of its Andean terroir.”
But there are no hard and fast rules for determining which pisco is better sipped than shaken or stirred; it’s really all about personal preference, says Lizzie Asher, president of Macchu Pisco. “I always liken pisco to wine when I’m asked this. Basically, if you like it, then that is a good sipping pisco.” She does suggest drinking it like the Peruvians do, though: straight up rather than on the rocks or chilled. “That is essentially cheating as the temperature change rounds out some harsh edges.”
Macchu Pisco’s recently released Nusta is billed as the world’s first luxury pisco. Only a hundred bottles of this mosto verde pisco, whose name translates to “Inca princess,” were released in the United States last year. Extremely smooth, delicate and floral, its $250 price point pretty much demands that it be sipped neat, though a few bartenders have mixed it into cocktails that show off this special release.
Speaking of cocktails, Asher is pleasantly surprised to see the trend of pisco’s inclusion on fall cocktail menus. Since it is a Latin American spirit, she admits she can see why it might generally be tied to warmer weather libations. “[But] it is technically a brandy, and bartenders pushing the envelope are thinking of it this way to incorporate it into their cocktails for cooler months.” Asher has noticed an uptick in Pisco Punch, which overwhelmingly pre-dates the Pisco Sour and is technically the first pisco cocktail recorded in the history books. Loret de Mola has seen the popularity of the Chilcano and Pisco Mule grow, as well as drinks that mix pisco with vermouth. His BarSol Perfecto Amor is made by separating grape juice and the pomace, and adding pisco made from the same grape to the juice. The vermouth-like offering preserves the aromas, flavors and style of the grape used, and can be enjoyed on ice garnished with orange peel, or in libations along the vein of a Martinez, Capitan, Manhattan or Negroni.
What’s next for pisco? Asher is pretty tight-lipped about Chicharron, Macchu Pisco’s upcoming release that’s along the lines of a pisco-mezcal hybrid. (Distiller Melanie Asher’s experiment involves immersing pork ribs into pisco, which differs from the production of pechuga mezcal, where chicken breast is suspended over the distillate.) And Pisco Portón just released La Caravedo Torontel, a pisco puro made from Torontel, with notes of rose, gardenia and violet. As Loret de Mola puts it, “as Peruvian pisco expands into the market, more people are understanding that there is a benefit to acquiring this great quality distillate which will enhance your imbibing experience.”
Llama Del Rey
Recipe created by Lynnette Marrero, Llama Inn, New York, NY
This drink is a play on traditional Sangria and Pisco Punch, inspired by chef Erik Ramirez’s Chicha Morada, a Peruvian drink made with purple corn. The drink’s name is a play on pop artist Lana Del Rey. “Her songs are moody and nostalgic,” say Marrero Gonzalez.
Makes 4-5 servings.
- 7 ½ oz. Dry red wine
- 3 ½ oz. Zacapa Rum
- 2 ½ oz. Lime juice
- 3 ½ oz. Grilled pineapple juice
- 3 oz. Barsol Mosto Italia Pisco
- ½ oz. Allspice dram
- 5 oz. Grenadine (see Note)
- 2 ½ oz. Sugar
- 2 ½ oz. Pomegranate juice
- 1 tbsp. Pink peppercorns
- ¼ Cup brewed hibiscus tea
- Frozen grapes, apple slices and fresh pineapple slices, for garnish
Slice a fresh pineapple and grill the slices until slightly charred. Juice the slices and discard the fruit. Warm the grenadine, hibiscus tea and peppercorns for 20 minutes, then strain out solids. Add it to the rest of the ingredients, and serve over ice garnished with the frozen grapes, apple slices and pineapple slices.
For the grenadine:
Mix equal parts sugar and pomegranate juice in a saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved.
Recipe created by Lynnette Marrero, Llama Inn, New York, NY
This cocktail’s name translates to “bad night.” It also happens to be the name of a 1985 film as well as a fictional gang from the show CSI: Miami. Perfecto Amor is a vermouth-like product made with grape juice and three kinds of pisco. It combines nicely with blended Scotch, bitters and a spicy syrup infused with cloves, cinnamon sticks and orange peels.
- 1 tsp. Chancaca sugar syrup (see Note)
- 3 dashes Angostura Bitters
- ¾ oz. Barsol Perfecto Amor
- 1 ½ oz. Blended Scotch
- Orange twist, for garnish
Place all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a large rocks glass over one large ice cube and garnish with an orange twist.
For the sugar syrup:
Combine 1 lb. chancaca or demerara sugar, 1 cup brown sugar, 5 cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 whole orange peel (with the pith removed) and 4 cups water in a pot. Simmer until a syrup consistency is reached, then cool and strain out solids.
Recipe courtesy of Shawn Ahern, Lucy’s American Tavern, Boston, MA
This take on the classic Pisco Punch uses a red wine float. The flavor is a nice foil to the pisco and tangy pineapple, and it also adds gorgeous color to the cocktail.
- 1 ½ oz. La Diablada Pisco
- ½ oz. Pineapple
- ½ oz. Pineapple juice
- 1 oz. Malbec
- Pineapple leaf and paper straw, for garnish
Add the first three ingredients to a cocktail shaker, add ice and hard shake to chill. Strain it into a Collins glass over fresh ice, float the Malbec on top, and garnish with the pineapple leaf and paper straw.
Recipe created by Lynnette Marrero and Jessica Gonzalez. Photo: Douglas Lyle Thompson
This Peruvian version of the French 75 uses grilled pineapple juice, which adds a savory flavor and deeper concentration of fruit flavor. Muña has a mint-like aroma; it grows in the Andes and keeps its green color even in the driest seasons.
- ½ oz. Lime juice
- ½ oz. Grilled pineapple juice (slice and grill pineapples, then juice)
- ½ oz. Muña-infused simple syrup (see Note)
- ¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
- 1 oz. Macchu Pisco Quebranta
- Chilled Champagne, to top
- Lime twist, for garnish
Add all ingredients except Champagne and garnish to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake to chill. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass, top with Champagne, and garnish with a lime twist.
For the muña-infused simple syrup:
Add 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a saucepan, and simmer over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, add 1 bunch muña or mint, and steep until desired flavor is reached. Strain out solids, and store the syrup in the refrigerator.
This refreshing tipple is a descendant of a Buck. “The beauty of this cocktail is that the pisco can be tasted,” notes Barsol Pisco founder Diego Loret de Mola. “The different flavors of pisco that come from the [various] grapes pisco is distilled from can make the cocktail taste differently depending which one is used.” He is partial to Barsol Acholado, a blend of Quebranta, Italia and Torontel grapes.
- 2 to 2 ½ oz. Barsol Acholado
- Dash Angostura Bitters
- ½ oz. Lime juice
- Ginger ale
- Lime wheel, for garnish
Add the pisco, bitters and lime juice to a highball glass over ice. Stir to combine, add ginger ale, stir again, and garnish with the lime wheel.
Recipe courtesy of Nathan Dalton, Catahoula Hotel, New Orleans, LA
“One of the most beautiful things about pisco is its versatility and mixability, and there are so many wonderful and creative mixologists embracing the spirit and making truly innovative cocktails,” says Pisco Portón master distiller Johnny Schuler. This variant of the Chilcano hails from a new Peruvian-themed hotel in New Orleans with a fabulous rooftop bar.
- 2 oz. Pisco Portón Mosto Verde or Pisco Portón Acholado
- ½ oz. Passion fruit puree
- ½ oz. Grenadine
- ¼ oz. Key lime juice
- Ginger beer or ginger ale
- Mint sprig, for garnish
Add all ingredients to a Collins glass over ice. Top with ginger beer, stir, and garnish with the mint sprig.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.