There are few classic cocktails as underappreciated as the Pisco Sour: a fresh, aromatic combination of pisco, lime juice, sugar and bitters that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Its headline ingredient, Chile and Peru’s brandy, or grape eau-de-vie, is just as underrated – at least outside its home countries.
There’s plenty of debate between the Chileans and Peruvians about who has the stronger claim to pisco, and indeed whose version is better. But for those of us with no skin in the game, drinkers without borders seeking the most delicious spirits, having a bottle of both at home is an advantage, resulting in a broader range of styles.
There are other brandies out there, but none showcases the grape, and its terroir, quite like pisco. ‘Pisco is the ultimate aromatic essence of the juice of characterful grapes,’ says Tom Bartram of Speciality Brands, UK importer of Peruvian pisco BarSol. ‘It has an unrivalled concentration of fruity and floral flavours, and represents more than 400 years of history and culture.’
Sany Bacsi, of Peruvian international restaurant and bar group Coya, agrees. ‘Pisco’s complexity is fascinating, with flavours and characteristics varying between different grape varieties and terroirs. It has a rich history and a lot of soul.’
Most piscos aren’t aged in oak, allowing them to be a pure expression of the grapes. ‘You can really taste the grape varieties your pisco is made from,’ explains Henry Jeffreys of online retailer Master of Malt. ‘You’re getting the essence of the base wine.’
While they share a name, and are all distilled from grapes, the piscos of Peru and Chile are made differently, resulting in different characteristics. Where the grapes are grown has an impact on the flavour, too, of course.
Chilean piscos arguably have more in common with conventional spirits production than their Peruvian counterparts. In Chile, where pisco must be made within the Atacama and Coquimbo regions, regulations allow producers a degree of freedom when it comes to how they distil the base wine, and oak ageing is permitted.
In Peru, meanwhile, the wine must be distilled to its final strength. Unlike other spirits, no water – or indeed anything else – can be added; the final product contains nothing but grape distillate. Peruvian pisco makers also produce highly sought-after expressions from partially fermented grape juice, known as mosto verde piscos.
These differences mean that, on the whole, Chilean piscos tend to be lighter while, as Bartram puts it, ‘Peruvian piscos usually have more weight and are more robust’.
How to make a Pisco Sour
The best-known version of this classic cocktail, with egg white and the iconic three drops of bitters, is the Peruvian version, with Chileans omitting these two ingredients. It’s worth following the Peruvians here.
Many maintain that a single- varietal pisco such as Quebranta is the best choice, but the beauty of pisco lies in its variety of styles, so experimentation won’t go unrewarded.
When it comes to bitters – with the three drops representing health, wealth and happiness – there’s nothing wrong with Angostura, although Peruvian brand Amargo Chuncho is the more authentic option (Alc 40% Master of Malt, The Whisky Exchange).
Finally, halving an egg white, while not impossible, is best avoided by making two of these at a time…
Glass: Tumbler or coupe
Garnish: Three drops of bitters
Method: Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Shake hard and strain into the glass. Add three drops of bitters to garnish.
Ingriedients: 50ml pisco, 25ml freshly squeezed lime juice, 12.5ml sugar syrup, 1⁄2 egg white
Permitted grape varieties differ between the two countries, too, which adds even more diversity to this already fascinating spirit. In Peru, producers divide their grapes into aromatic varieties, such as Italia, Moscatel and Torontel, and non- aromatic, such as Quebranta. These are used in single-varietal piscos (puros) and in blends (acholados). In Chile, varieties include various Muscats, as well as Torontel.
While both countries claim pisco as their own, Peruvian ownership of the Pisco Sour is less subject to debate. Origin stories attribute an early incarnation of the cocktail to American bartender Victor Vaughen Morris, who opened his bar in the Peruvian capital of Lima in 1916.
It’s the cocktail most associated with pisco. ‘The classic Pisco Sour is obviously the first libation that springs to mind, and deservedly so – it’s delicious,’ says Bartram. ‘But in Peru the Chilcano rivals its popularity: a long drink with pisco, ginger ale, a dash of bitters and a squeeze of lime.’
Unsurprisingly, there are many other ways to enjoy this versatile spirit. ‘There are few things better than a refreshing Pisco Tonic on a hot summer evening,’ says Coya’s Bacsi.
Then there’s the Pisco Punch, another neglected classic, combining pisco, pineapple syrup and lime juice, with room for a personal touch. ‘With culinary flair, you can vary the Pisco Punch’s ingredients from one day to the next,’ says Amathus Drinks managing director Harry Georgiou.
Beyond that, there are piscos that make wonderful Martinis, and those that are ideal for serving neat – just some of the many ways in which to explore this diverse and multifaceted spirit.
Spirit of the grape: Six top piscos to try
1615 Pisco Mosto Verde Torontel
Distilled from partially fermented Torontel, grown in Lanchas in the province of Pisco, this is multilayered and complex, with raisins and curry spice alongside potpourri and even a touch of leather – fascinating, and well suited to a neat serve. Alcohol 42%
A 100% Muscat of Alexandria pisco made in Chile’s Elqui Valley by the Aguirre family. There’s wonderful purity of fruit here, with grainy pear and peach joined by sweet spice and lifted by some lime peel towards the finish. Alc 40%
Demonio de Los Andes Acholado
Peru’s Tacama, in the Valle de Ica, lays claim to being the oldest vineyard in South America. This acholado blends a number of grape varieties, including Quebranta, Albilla and Italia, resulting in a rounded, almost-creamy spirit with lime zest and icing sugar, and deeper notes of spiced pear. Alc 40%
The Torres family, known for its wines and brandies, produces El Gobernador in the Limarí Valley. A blend of Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Rosada results in rich peach and tarte tatin notes, balanced by fresh citrus and backed by a lovely floral component. Alc 40%
Viñas de Oro Quebranta
This single-varietal Quebranta is an indulgent spirit, rich with vanilla ice cream and peach cobbler notes on the nose, and a punchy, spicy mouthfeel with a nutty component and a touch of salinity. It’s made at Viñas de Oro, in the Chincha province of Peru. Alc 41%
At Pisquera Tulahuén, in Chile’s Limarí Valley, the Camposano family leverages five generations of pisco-making tradition to create Waqar, distilled in wood-fired copper alembic stills. The Muscat grape character really shines through here, with juicy citrus and a lemongrass note. Also look out for Heron, Waqar’s aged expression. Alc 40%