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The drinks world has a lot to thank Spanish missionaries for. They were the first to plant vines in California, and it’s also down to them that we have pisco.
Pisco is a distinctive brandy made in Peru and Chile by distilling fermented grape juice. The missionaries clearly liked a tipple, but it was tricky and expensive to transport Spanish brandy to the increasingly remote places they were exploring.
In Peru they discovered a local spirit called aguardiente, which is a generic term for any kind of fermented alcoholic drink. It was very inconsistent so they refined the process and also planted grapes in order to increase production.
The spirit was then exported back to Spain through the Peruvian port of Pisco, and so ‘aguardiente de pisco’ eventually became known simply as pisco. The same thing happened in Mexico, where mezcal from the town of Tequila became known as tequila.
Pisco is still a growing market in the UK, but it can be bought from specialist spirits merchants and online stockists, and we predict availability will increase. We taste tested a variety of Peruvian and Chilean piscos available in the UK to bring you our favourites.
Best pisco to buy in the UK
This beautifully aromatic Chilean pisco is produced in small batches by fifth-generation family distillery, Waqar. Floral and vegetal aromas emerge from the bottle neck; in the mouth it has a syrupy-like quality, coating everything with those floral tastes, the peachy notes, a taste as complex as a wine. It slips down smoothly, and would be a very versatile spirit for cocktail-making.
La Diablada pisco
A modern creation using traditional methods, this has both sweet and spicy notes, with a very smooth finish. A blended pisco is known as an ‘acholado’ and in this case the result on the nose is wonderful. The blend produces an intriguing mix of the floral, the herbal and a dash of spiciness too. This is one of the smoothest piscos around in the UK, and just from the nose you know it’s a superior spirit – this is confirmed in the tasting.
El Gobernador pisco
Fruity and floral, this makes for a solid mixer for pisco sours and other cocktails. It’s one of the more affordable piscos available in the UK, so would be a good entry-level spirit for those wanting to try it for the first time. It has lots of botanical, grassy notes on the nose. Plenty of lime will bring out its best.
BarSol Selecto Acholado pisco
BarSol is a common name on UK pisco menus. The Selecto Acholado is one of the brand’s superior piscos. Expect both floral and vegetal notes, plus sweetness and citrus. It’s made from a blend of three grape varieties – Quebranta, Italia and Torontel – and, like all Peruvian piscos, has no additives. The pure distilled grape juice smells intensely alcoholic but this gives way to sweet fruit, like peaches and watermelons, and floral notes. This through to the palate, with the sour, spicy and citrus notes coming through too, with a flavour not dissimilar to Italian grappa.
What is pisco?
As with mezcal and tequila, pisco is a spirit of great variety. The taste depends on which grape type is used, or whether it’s a blended pisco. The flavour profile also depends on how long the grapes are left to ferment, and it also depends on the distillation process. A major factor is also whether it comes from Peru or Chile.
In Peru, where it’s generally accepted the spirit originated (unless you’re Chilean), the production of the drink is strictly controlled. Peruvian pisco comes from any of five different regions, and from any of the eight grape varieties grown there.
The grape juice can only be distilled once. You cannot add sugar or additives of any kind. You can’t even add water to dilute the drink so it has to be produced at whatever alcohol strength you’re aiming for. The pisco must be stored for three months in a vessel that will not impact on the flavour, such as glass or steel. Peruvian pisco cannot be aged in a barrel.
Chilean pisco is also regulated but not quite as strictly, making for slightly more variety. Chilean pisco must come from one of two areas, Atacama and Coquimbo, and must be made from grapes grown at the distillery.
Most piscos use the muscat grape, although others may be used. It can be distilled more than once, and also water can be added to dilute the alcohol. It can be aged in a barrel, so Chilean piscos can have some colour, usually very slight, while Peruvian piscos are clear.
Both governments have campaigned for their own pisco to have appellation of origin status, like champagne and cognac, but without much success. Meanwhile, the pisco wars continue. Peruvian pisco exported to Chile cannot be called pisco but either aguardiente or destilado de uva (grape distillate). Even more strict, it’s illegal to bring Chilean pisco into Peru!
Learn how to make the perfect pisco sour.
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