Pisco, the distinctive Peruvian spirit, has had its ups and downs. During the 1960s, it was one of the most popular drinks in California, particularly in San Francisco, because of the influx of Peruvian immigrants who settled in that city from the Gold Rush onward. However, the military government that ruled Peru from 1968 to 1980 destroyed many vineyards and sent the pisco industry into eclipse.
With the stabilization of the country over the past 15 years, artisan pisco once again is being produced and finding its way to the United States. In the vanguard of the trend are producers such as Diego Loret de Mola, Melanie Asher and Duggan McDonnell, who have traveled to Peru to source the wine that is transformed into their products.
“Pisco is distilled from wine,” says Loret de Mola, whose BarSol brand is now available in 44 states. “We use only the free-run juice, fermented with natural yeasts and with no additives or sulfites. This goes directly into the still, which gives pisco its remarkable fragrance.”
Peruvian pisco is made from eight authorized grape varieties, and comes in four styles: pure (made from a single type of grape), aromatic (made from Muscat or Muscat-derived varieties), mosto verde (distilled from partially fermented must), and acholado (a blend of several different grapes). The result is a clear grape brandy with the appearance of vodka, but with an enhanced texture, aroma and flavor.
To make matters more complicated, pisco also is produced in Chile, which capitalized on the decades-long decline of the Peruvian economy. There are significant differences between the two versions. Chilean pisco is mass-produced and can be adulterated before bottling; the Peruvian spirit is made in small batches in pot stills, and cannot be altered in any way before reaching the consumer.
The classic cocktail is the Pisco Sour, which incorporates lemon or lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup and bitters and is shaken until a froth rests on top of the drink. The Pisco Punch has also been popular since its invention in the 1880s; it involves marinating pineapple overnight in gum syrup, then adding distilled water, lemon juice and copious amounts of pisco. Although pisco may not be as American as apple pie, a Pineapple Pisco Sour is served at the 149 locations of The Cheesecake Factory. McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants around the country serve a classic version of the drink, while the Roy’s chain offers customers a Passion Fruit Pisco Sour.
In independent restaurants, individual mixologists are the gatekeepers, and producers such as Loret de Mola spend a great deal of time on bartender education. Their efforts are paying off. Creative pisco cocktails are now featured at establishments such as Providence in Los Angeles, La Mar and Fresca in San Francisco, the Pio Pio restaurants in New York, and Restaurant Eve in the Washington, D.C. area. These cocktails pair well with Peruvian cooking, a fusion cuisine that blends elements from Spain, France, Italy, China and Africa.
There are more than 250 brands of pisco in Peru, several dozen of which are imported to the States. All are reasonably priced. Some of the best-known are Don César Pisco Puro ($30), Macchu Pisco ($25), Biondi ($40), Centenario ($40), Tres Generaciones ($40), and Soldeica “Black Huaco” ($40). Sample one of these in a Pisco Sour, and you’ll discover why the drink is gradually taking its place alongside the mojito and caipirinha in the hearts of cocktail lovers.