Pisco hails from either Peru or Chile, and represents a bit of a cultural and historical debate between the two countries. As a result, it’s best to discuss each separately, because each has different philosophies driving their production, and different laws governing how the spirit gets made. Its origin stretch back to the Spanish conquistadors that created a single origin brandy called Pisco (also a port city in Peru). They also planted vines in the regions of the Ica Valley in Peru and the Elqui and Limari Valleys in Chile (which are part of the driest dessert in the world, the Atacama). Most of Pisco production today still comes from these places.
Peruvian Pisco can be made from 8 different varieties of grapes: Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Uvina, and Mollar, which are non-aromatic, and Moscatel, Torontel, Italia, and Albilla, which are very aromatic.
Pisco’s classification in Peru stems from which grapes are used, how many different types, and how dry or sweet the wine is before distillation. When made with drier wine of a single varietal, the Pisco takes the name “Puro.” A sub classification of “Puro” is “Aromatica,” meaning the single varietal used is one of the aromatic ones. When made with dry wine from a blend of grapes, the Pisco takes the name “Acholado.” Finally, when made from fully sweet wine, the Pisco gets classified as “Mosto Verde.” This last style has grown tremendously in recent years, with most considering it the highest quality.
The Ica, Lima, Arequipa, Moquegua or Tacna valley regions, all along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, have special climates. As such, Pisco must be made from grapes grown in some combination of these sites. The cold water along the coast to the west and the Andes mountains to the east leaves these regions with little rain and clouds, perfect conditions for growing very sweet grapes. The sweetness of the grapes is very important, because by law producers can only distill Pisco once, and without enough sugar to turn into alcohol, this would be impossible.
As hinted at above, Peruvian Pisco must be made from actual wine, not the leftovers from the winemaking process, which is the case for many other Brandys. Grappa, for instance, almost always comes from this excess of the winemaking process. The reason Pisco has to come from wine boils down to what is true for most things: the better the ingredients you start with, the better the product you end up with.
To finish up, let’s touch on one final important rule regarding Pisco production: oak. Peruvian Pisco may not, under any circumstances, spend any time in oak. This puts it in stark contrast with many other famous Brandys, such as Cognac, which derives most of their flavors from barrel ageing. It does, however, need to spend at least 3 months in a neutral vessel. The traditional vessel is an elongated clay pot called a botija. Other common vessels include glass jars and stainless steel tanks.
Chile is internationally recognized as a wine power house producer, often referred to as the “Bordeaux of South America.” Peru, while it does have a domestic wine industry that has some gems, is much better known for its Pisco than wine.
Chile’s (slightly) laxer regulations allow for a level of innovation and experimentation that has some stunning results. As an example, many Chilean producers do age their Piscos in oak, which gives them an added layer of flavors that complement nicely the fruit tones that Pisco naturally exudes.
However, even if we just compare Piscos intended to highlight what the wine, and therefore the grapes, bring to the party, Peruvian and Chilean Piscos are distinct from each other. To get a clearer picture, let’s investigate the regulations that Chile does impose.
For starters, Chile actually allows fewer varietals to be used, and they can only come from either the Atacama or Coquimbo regions in the valleys of Elqui and Limari. These grapes are Pink Muscat, Muscat of Alexandria - which are very fragrant - and Pedro Jiménez, Moscatel de Asturia and Torontel - which are subtle, but still more fragrant than the non-aromatic set of grapes Peru uses. If nothing else, this means that Chilean Pisco is either more aromatic, or nearly as aromatic, as any Peruvian counterpart. Another fun fact: Chile, produces, exports and consumes the most Pisco in the world. They do so either in the world famous Pisco Sour (Created in 1920's Lima by an American from San Francisco), or traditional Piscola...yes, Coca-Cola with Pisco.
Second, Chile has 4 designations based on proof:
- Corriente o Tradicional, 30% to 35% (60 to 70 proof)
- Pisco Especial, 35% to 40% (70 to 80 proof)
- Pisco Reservado, 40% (80 proof)
- Gran Pisco, 43% or more (86 or more proof)
Finally, producers must grow their own grapes, meaning that on top of being master distillers, they need to be excellent farmers, because growing grapes is no joke.
In the end, it’s best to consider Peruvian Pisco and Chilean Pisco as cousins, not siblings, and especially not the same thing. Chilean Pisco often appears sweeter and rounder, with intense aromatics, while Peruvian Pisco has a larger variety of fundacional expressions, but fewer innovative outliers. And always keep in mind when you enjoy this (usually) chyrstal clear spirit, you are literally imbibing history.
For a great place in DC to go for an opportunity to grasp the differences between the Pisco of each country, and individual producers themselves, check out China Chilcano, also on 7th street, near the Mall. And if you're interested in a deeper dive into the flavors and uses for Pisco, check out our installment of Understanding Cocktails where we focus on it.