The History of Peruvian Pisco

* For those of you who’d rather skip the history and get right to the Pisco Sour recipe – click here.!

pisco sour

Pisco is clear Peruvian grape brandy, made by distilling the fresh musts of specific varieties of grapes. It is the national spirit of both Peru and Chile. There has been an ongoing battle between Peru and Chile for credit for its creation; but it is internationally recognized as originating in Peru. Pisco probably began to be produced in Chile after its occupation of southern Peru in the late 19th century.We’ll concentrate on Peruvian pisco, which is universally believed to be the gold standard.

The name pisco itself has an interesting history. Pisqu or pissqu means “little bird” or “seagull” in the Quechua language. Legend has it that an Ica Valley tribe was renowned for its skilled potters. Chuquimanco, the tribe’s chief, saw a flock of pisqu seabirds, and was inspired to name the potters’ village after them.  This Incan tribe produced amphora-style clay vessels to store liquids, as well as to ferment chicha (corn mash beer), which is the only alcoholic beverage attributable to the pre-Colombian Incas. These vessels came to be called piskos, after the tribe that made them; this eventually evolved into the word pisco.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they imposed their lifestyle upon Peru. Wine was a basic component of daily life (and the Catholic Church); so the Spanish quickly imported Iberian grapes to Peru. European black Muscatel grapes were planted throughout Peru’s southern coastal valleys in the mid-1500s. These grapes, which had been previously used to make raisins and brandy, became the grape of choice for Peruvian winemaking. Advanced Incan irrigation canals were already in place in the Ica Valley, which carried melted snow down from the Andes Mountains; as a result, viniculture was able to flourish in this hot, desert area.

These Muscatel grapes came to be known in Peru as quebranta, which means “broken-in.” As the grapes acclimatized to their new environment, they developed into a genetic mutation, becoming their own discrete variety. Quite fortuitously, this mutation rendered quebranta grapes resistant (though not immune) to the phylloxera insect that all but destroyed European grape stock in the 19th century.

quebranta grapes

Peruvian wine trade thrived; and the Ica’s capital city and main port, Pisco, bustled with wine exports. In fact, during the 1600s, Peruvian wine production became so lucrative that King Felipe II of Spain banned Peruvian wine imports altogether, to eliminate competition with Spain. Consequently, grape farmers increased production of aguardiente (fermented alcoholic beverages) throughout the Viceroyalty in the mid 16th century – especially Peruvian grape brandy. Peruvian brandy soon became popular among travelers to the region. Its popularity spread; and exports from Ica’s capital city and main port, Pisco, increased considerably. It became widely known as pisco because of the double reference (to both storage vessel and port).

Pisco even made a brief appearance in U.S. history during the California gold rush era. Ships bound for California stopped in Pisco, picking up pisco and other liquors, which they then traded in California ports. Pisco became extremely popular in San Francisco; the Bank Exchange & Billiard Room created Pisco Punch: a potent brew of pisco, pineapple and lemon or lime juice, gum Arabic, and distilled water – so potent, in fact, that several celebrated writers (including Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling) wrote about it and helped spread its popularity, until Prohibition closed the Exchange’s doors.

So to recap: the name pisco refers to the region, the port, the clay vessels, and the beverage itself… which clearly shows pisco’s great importance to Peruvian culture.

Pisco Today

Peruvians take exceptional pride in their pisco. To preserve its quality and reputation, a series of policies and laws have regulated the production, classification and appellation of pisco from the 19th century to the present day. Today, Pisco is produced in legally designated areas of origin, and production is closely monitored. Proof is not regulated, though it is usually about 42%. Pisco must be aged for a minimum of three months in vessels that do not alter the pisco in any way, and no additives whatsoever are permitted.

There are four recognized grades of Peruvian pisco:

puro (non-aromatic)

Made primarily from Quebranta grapes (considered to be the best), but sometimes from Mollar, Common Black, or Uvina grapes.It is produced exclusively from one single variety of pisco grapes, which is indicated on the bottle label. It is the most exported and sought-after grade of pisco, as it is considered to be the highest quality.

aromático (aromatic)

Fresh musts fermented from the blending of ‘aromatic’ pisco grape varieties, such as Muscat, Italia, Torontel, and Albilla.

italia grapes

acholado (also called “half-breed”)

Made from blending any varieties of Pisco grapes, both aromatic and non-aromatic.

musto verde (green must)

Partially fermented fresh must that is distilled before the fermentation process has completely transformed all the sugars into alcohol. Not necessarily sweeter; but exceptionally smooth.

Each grade has its own unique flavor profile; but I would say that the unifying characteristics of good pisco are smoothness and clean, fresh flavors. It is so smooth that it’s difficult to taste the alcohol… which has both benefits and risks! The best piscos are meant to be sipped neat. I prefer to drink pisco in mixed cocktails (see my Pisco Sour recipe, and look for more pisco drink recipes coming soon!). I personally like puro for Pisco Sours, and aromático for fruitier drinks. Sample different varieties to see which you prefer.

Pisco does have its detractors, who say that it’s just a clear brandy… but they don’t know what they’re missing. I think it’s a truly unique addition to your beverage repertoire.  I hope you’ll give it a try!

Even though pisco is surfacing on the U.S. radar again, it can still be difficult to find in the U.S. But ask your local wine and spirit merchant – many are very willing to order special items for their customers.  Here is a list of some great Piscos – hope this helps.

Salud!