A Peek at Pisco – Your New Favorite Spirit

Pisco is one of those spirits with a steady buzz among spirit wonks like myself, but with little visibility by the general drinking public beyond the occasional Pisco Sour. I’ve been a fan of pisco for years and enjoy the hell out of a good pisco punch (pisco, pineapple syrup and lemon juice). However, a recent event at Damn the Weather in Seattle was a revelation to me – I honestly had no idea of the diversity across the many styles and blends of pisco available. This post is a brief introduction to pisco and some highlights of what the event covered. I plan to do more posts in the future that drill in deeper.

Peruvian Pisco at Damn the weather
Here are the basics: Pisco’s base is grapes – fermented and then distilled. Distilled spirits that start with fermented grapes are commonly known as brandy. However, there are number of factors that make pisco different than your garden variety $9 bottle of Christian Brothers brandy. But before we get into why it’s different, let’s first establish that both Peru and Chile make a product known as pisco. It’s generally accepted in the spirits community that Peruvian pisco conforms to tighter standards on what’s allowed, and in general, Peruvian pisco is considered higher quality. I find most Peruvian pisco to be a very clean, aromatic spirit, with a strong fruit and floral essences. It really is a joy to just sip neat.
To be a Peruvian pisco, the grapes must be one of eight different allowed varieties. The fermented juice from these grapes can only be distilled once, to an alcohol percentage between 38 and 48 percent. The distillation must occur in copper pot stills rather than in a column still. This single distillation is a fairly significant differentiator. Most pot-stilled spirits, including Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y, are distilled two or three times. The benefit of single distillation to a relatively low proof (as opposed to roughly 70 percent ABV where most spirits finish) is that more of the original flavors of the fermented grapes make it into the final product. After distillation, the distillate must rest for a minimum of three months in glass, stainless steel or other material that doesn’t impart flavors to the distillate.
At the event, a cornucopia of pisco bottles were out on display, a vast majority I’d never seen or heard of before. Adam L. Weintraub, one of the event presenters mentioned that a number of them were “suitcase pisco,” meaning he’d brought them to the US in his own luggage, since they aren’t yet imported here. I figured they were just for us to look at, so I was utterly surprised when we were given free reign near the end of the event to sample any of the dozens of bottles on the bar. Much like mezcal aficionados have discovered hundreds of artisanal distillers in Mexico, pisco also has hundreds of small distillers making amazing pisco with a wide range of flavor profiles.

Jay Kuehner of Damn the Weather
The event started with Jay Kuehner, bartender at Damn the Weather, and a big local pisco advocate, taking the first twenty minutes or so to share the background of pisco. Next up was Fernando Gonzales Lattini, maker of Piscología. He spoke in detail about the production of his particular pisco. Last up with Adam L. Weintraub, a former Seattle native who married a Peruvian woman and moved to Peru. He now owns the Museo Del Pisco, a bar/restaurant in Cusco, Peru that focuses exclusively on pisco, with a collection numbering in the hundreds. Adam talked about his own personal experience with pisco, as well as educating people about pisco at his restaurant.
Jay Kuehner and Fernando Gonzales Lattini
After the main presentation, there was a lively discussion about the use of pisco for mixing in cocktails. One particular interesting takeaway was that many of the same flavor combinations that work well with agave spirits (tequila, mezcal) also tend to work well with pisco. Pisco also tends to work well with other grape-based spirits such as vermouth. I was excited to learn that two of my favorite Seattle bartenders, Jay, and Dustin Haarstad from Canon,  are pisco freaks, a fact heretofore unknown to me – I fully intend to challenge them to make me all sorts of interesting pisco drinks. There was also a healthy back and forth about the availability of more pisco brands in the Washington state market and how to improve the situation.
Adam L. Weintraub
Some other key takeaways, in no particular order:
  • There are four main styles of pisco: Puro (single grape), Aromaticas (made from muscat derived grapes), Mosto Verde (distilled from partially fermented “must,” which contains stems, peels, etc.), and Acholado (a blend of several grape varieties).
  • Peruvian pisco must be clear. It cannot be barrel-aged and still legally be pisco.
  • In Peru, pisco is often infused with fruit or coffee, but then isn’t legally pisco.
  • Pisco is often used in Peruvian cooking.
  • A typical batch size for distilling pisco is 500 to 1000 liters.
  • It takes seven liters of fermented grape “wine” to make one liter of pisco.
By time the prepared presentations ended, I was ready to book a trip to Peru ASAP. I’ve always had an interest in the country, starting with a fifth grade project involving a giant cookie dough map of the country made I made. The prospect of visiting Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca site, was already enough to put Peru on my radar, but now my intense desire to tour pisco distilleries has bumped a Peruvian expedition way up on my list of travel plans.
After the tastings, the event ended with a round of cocktails, made to order. We were able to select from two different pisco-based recipes – I selected an El Capitan, which is roughly akin to a Manhattan but with the whiskey replaced by pisco, and a closer ratio of base spirit to vermouth. There were several other bloggers and journalist present and I enjoyed chatting with them over great pisco cocktails. All in all, a very well executed event, and a model for what other spirit events should aspire to!

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