Peruvian Pisco tasting
Everything you need to know about tasting Peru’s national drink at the Museo de Pisco, Cusco. Plus, a video guide on how to make the perfect Pisco Sour
The history of Pisco
You can thank God for Pisco. That’s a fact. Grapes were first brought to Peru in the days of the conquest, when ships regularly brought grapes, cattle and olive oil from Spain to ease their passage to a hostile land. With the evangelisation of the indigenous population a top political priority, wine was sorely needed. Plantations were initially developed by Jesuit priests and Pisco, distinct from wine, appeared at the end of the sixteenth century. With grapes originating in Europe and cultivated here, combined with a Quechua name, meaning little bird, Pisco is a purely Peruvian creation.
Over the centuries, the fate of Peruvian Pisco has waxed and waned. Wars with Chile in 19th Century led to the destruction of many hectares of plantations. Thankfully, Pisco has experienced a renaissance in recent decades. Declared a Peruvian denomination in 1990, it has experienced a boom in production since 2003 when the government took steps to increase areas of cultivation. In 2015, 453 producers of Pisco were registered in Peru, and in 2016 exports grew by 30%. Forecasts for 2017 predict growth of a further 15% with exports to Chile and the United States.
The Museo del Pisco, in Cusco, is the best place to learn a little more about the fascinating history of the national drink. They stock more than 90 varieties of Peruvian Pisco from the country’s five regions and offer tastings, Pisco Sour making classes, and a damn fine menu of Pisco-based cocktails.
Our catador – or Pisco sommelier – Israel, led us through a tasting of four typical Peruvian Piscos. Of course, he cautioned us, a Pisco tasting should not be taken lightly. Three small sips are recommended to give the palate time to adjust to the high alcohol content in order to appreciate the complex flavours. Pisco is best enjoyed at room temperature with a glass of water close at hand. Above all, Israel told us, “it’s most important to be able to connect scent and flavour with memory. That’s what makes each tasting unique.”
The first two were Pisco Puros – Torre de la Gala from Arequipa and Afundos from Lima. They offered an excellent contrast, the first full of smooth red apple flavours, and the second, from an Italia grape, offering fresh basil with notes of cut grass and a fiery finish in the throat. Israel pointed out one notable aspect of Pisco being the lack of barrel fermentation. “This means that all the flavour comes directly from the grape itself.”
Next up was an Acholado blend, Ferreyros from the Ica region. It was markedly different, spicy on the palate, and resembling Talisker, Israel noted, “like a salty sea mist on the coast.” Our final tasting was a Tres Generaciones Mosto Verde, also from Ica, packed with sweet, dark caramel notes and with a pleasing afterburn in the throat.
Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at the delicacy and range of flavour. Far from just being a cocktail favourite, Pisco is a versatile and complex spirit that has much more in common with whisky than grappa. We’d happily spend an evening slowly sipping our way through a bottle. Having said that, we were still keen to master the art of the Pisco Sour, the signature Peruvian cocktail.
Making the perfect Pisco Sour
The Pisco Sour was developed by America William Victor Morris in 1908 during his time in Lima. What we recognise as the classic recipe today is, in fact, a combination of the original Pisco Sour and another warm drink, the Pisco Punch, similar to egg-nog. The first sour used cinnamon to mask the scent of the egg. Today, the recipe uses Angostura Bitters.
The perfect Pisco Sour recipe
1 OZ Syrup
1OZ Key Lime Juice
1 Egg White
2-3 drops bitter
Ice to shake
1 – Pour Pisco, Syrup and Lime into a shaker
2 – Add Ice, then Egg White
3 – Shake it baby, hard! You’ll be done when the liquid loses its green tinge
4 – Strain into an 8OZ glass, no ice
5 – Add the Bitters
6 – Kick back and enjoy!
Check out how it’s done in our video guide:
Pisco’s essential facts
- Peruvian Pisco is made from eight varietals, split into two groups of four aromatic and four non-aromatic grapes
- It is produced in five regions along the Pacific coast of Peru: Arequipa, Lima, Moquegua and Tacna, and Ica – the most famous
- The spirit ranges from 38 to 48 % vol but the four we tasted hovered around an average of 42%.
- The three Pisco varieties are Puro, distilled from a single varietal, Acoholado, a blend, and Mosto Verde, where the distillation process begins when there is still sugar in the juice, leading to a smoother end result
- Pisco requires 5 to 7 kilos of grapes for just a litre of spirit, or between 10 to 14 for a Mosto Verde – much more than wine which requires around 1kg for a whole bottle
- Production begins in March with pisa de uva – or grape stomping – from dawn to dusk
- Fermentation lasts from 7 to 14 days
- Distillation in copper vats then lasts for up to 7 days
- Pisco is then rested for between 3 months to 3 years
- Unlike other grape spirits, the skins are not used to produce pisco. This is why it’s always a perfectly clear spirit
Visiting the Museo del Pisco
You can visit the Museo del Pisco in the following locations:
Cusco – Santa Catalina Ancha 398 con Sn. Augustin
Arequipa – Calle Moral 229-A con Sta. Catalina
Lima – Jirón Junín 205 con Carabaya
Pisco degustation, from S/45 pp
Pisco sour making, S/30 pp