Pisco is the South American grape aguardiente (‘firewater’) spirit obtained from the distillation of recently fermented grape musts and juices. Pisco is produced according to traditional practices established in production areas recognised and declared by Peruvian and Chilean legislation.
Pisco Puro– Pisco produced from only one grape variety, most commonly from the local Quebranta grape. Aromatic varieties such as Torontel or Italia are also used.
Pisco Acholado – Produced from a blend of different grapes varieties.
Pisco Mosto Verde – A rare type of speciality pisco; the spirit is distilled from partially fermented grape must wine.
Pisco derives its name from the town of Pisco on the coast of Peru, located in the Ica valley region. The word pisco in turn comes from the Quechua term ‘pisqu’ meaning ‘little bird’, after the birds that inhabited the valleys of the Ica region.
Grapes first arrived in Peru from the Canary Islands during the 16th century, brought by the Marquis Francisco de Caravantes. The first viniculture process occurred in the Marcahusi Farm in Cuzco in 1560; however it was in the valleys of Ica where these crops expanded due to exceptional weather and fertile soil conditions. The grape crop became so successful that wine was eventually exported from Peru to Spain. Grapes that were not of suitable quality, as well as the remnants from the wine industry, were given to local farmers to do as they pleased with. From these remnants, small groups began to make a brandy-like spirit that evolved into pisco.
By the 1640s, Iberian producers were so concerned about the competition from the Peruvian wine export trade that they successfully petitioned Felipe II for a ban. This resulted in an industry wide glut of grapes that were made into brandy to avoid waste and the birth of the commercial Peruvian ‘brandy’ industry. It was not until much later that the name Pisco was given to this brandy by the sailors who drank it on their journeys back to Spain from the port of Pisco.
Pisco production begins with the harvesting of non-aromatic grape varieties of, such as Quebranta, Negro Corriente (Negra Criollo) and Mollar, and of aromatic varieties, such as Italia, Muscat and Torontel. The grapes are cleaned and then pressed to release their juice, which is used to make wine. The remnants will then be macerated, if they are to be used for aromatic piscos. The top quality central portion of the macerated mixture (mosto yema) will be removed then allowed to ferment for 10 to 12 days.
When the fermentation is complete and the sugar content is at 0, the mildly alcoholic mixture is pumped through to a copper still where it is heated with gas for distillation. During distillation the lower quality ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ (beginning and end products of distillation) are removed leaving the ‘heart’ of the spirit, which is 38 to 48% ABV.
The pisco will then be allowed to rest in a neutral container, such as glass of stainless steel, for a period of 3 months to a year after which time it will often be filtered before bottling. Peruvian pisco may not be aged in oak
There is a long standing debate between Peru and Chile as to which country is the ‘spiritual’ home of pisco.
Pisco in Peru is produced in the fertile soil of the Ica Valley in the coastal regions between the Peru and Chile border to the south and Lima in the north.
In Chile, the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo are designated for pisco production. In general, Chile produces a standardised version of pisco for the international market whilst Peru looks to produce artisanal pisco focusing on traditional methods.