Pisco is a grape brandy produced in Chile and Peru. It came about in the 16th century, when the conquistadores who had colonized the region began to grow grapes to make wine. The results were then distilled to create pisco. Sip it neat or make a deliciously refreshing Pisco Sour by adding lime juice, sugar syrup and egg white. It’s unclear whether Chile or Peru was the birthplace of pisco. Either way, the grape brandy was first made in this part of the world in the 16th century, after settlers planted grapes to make wine, then distilled it to create the spirit.
Pisco is Brandy’s lesser known, under-appreciated South American cousin. Whereas aged grape spirits bring nuance and maturity to a cocktail, the unaged Pisco brings the funk. Many bottlings include floral notes like jasmine and rose, tropical fruits like pineapple and ripe melon, baking spices and black pepper, nutty almond, and grassier flavors like pine. Meanwhile the spirit’s lack of aging, which can be a defining factor in other brandy-based beverages, lets Pisco play well with other ingredients in diverse cocktails. While many piscos match beautifully with lime and egg white in a simple Pisco Sour, the intriguing tastes of the spirit work with a huge array of flavors and textures, from vegetal to bitter to creamy.
Pisco, appearing behind more bars and in untraditional drinks, can be mixed and muddled in countless ways. But, only four traditional Peruvian pisco cocktails exist: Pisco Punch, Pisco Sour, El Capitán and The Chilcano.
The most fascinating part of pisco's cocktail history, and the development of those four pillars, is its link to the United States. Pisco's current surge in popularity is not the first time the spirit has enjoyed a run of stateside success. In fact, the brandy used to be prominent in the U.S. in the mid to late 19th century, particularly in San Francisco and along the west coast. Bartender-owner Duncan Nicol of Bank Exchange in San Francisco is responsible for the Pisco Punch. The bar opened in 1853 and although its exact year of invention may be lost, by the 1870s its Pisco Punch was noted as being perhaps the most popular drink in the city, with a lofty 25 cent price tag. Sadly, the exact recipe remains lost in time, too. Nicol's recipe included a very special ingredient. People say there also may have been cocaine in the cocktail, which was legal then." Perhaps that is why it was noted not only for its popularity, but its strength.