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The Promise of Pisco: Chilean Pisco Makes a Surge in U.S. Market

Posted on  | March 23, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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The Elqui Valley

Unless you’ve been to Chile, or were bar-hopping in California in the early 1900s, chances are you’ve never tasted Chilean pisco. That’s because after Prohibition killed pisco’s short-lived run in the U.S. (the first pisco cocktail, the Pisco Punch, was invented in San Francisco), the aromatic wine-based distillate has been more-or-less absent here—only a scant few brands with spotty distribution. Luckily, this soon will change, as a slew of Chilean distributors have set their sights on the American market.

“I thought I knew what made Chilean pisco unique compared to other grape distillates, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I went to Chile,” says David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author. “The fermentation and aging differences make for a very complex, smooth and unique spirit. There are similarities with other brandies, but when you focus in on the details, you start to see the real differences.”

Unique Raw Materials

Pisco was the first spirit consumed in Chile. The Spanish introduced grape vines in the mid-1500s, and distillation in the centuries following. The word “pisco” (like many terms related to products with ancient roots) has a muddled origin, but there is no doubt that Chile’s pisco industry evolved along with its wine industry. The same conditions that make Chile a grape-growing paradise—sunny valleys, diverse soils, clear skies, dry air—naturally bode well for the base wine for Pisco production.

Regulations are somewhat tight: Chilean distilleries are required to grow their own grapes and make their own wine. While grape varieties are also regulated, growers have a nice range from which to choose. Grapes are grouped into two categories based on aromatic expressiveness: Muscat types (Pink Muscat, Muscat of Alexandria) are very fragrant while Pedro Jiménez, Moscatel de Austria and Torontel are less so.

The Taste of the Place

Pisco must be made in the country’s two official D.O. (Denomination of Origin) regions—Atacama and Coquimbo—established in 1931 by the government. The Elqui Valley subregion of Coquimbo (getting noticed as well as an up-and-coming still wine region) has emerged as a premier pisco zone. “The sun is what makes pisco what it is,” says Javier Marcos, export director for Capel Pisco. “The Elqui Valley area has one of the clearest skies in the world—scientists have installed large astronomical observatories here for that reason. The light intensity yields grapes with higher sugars and thicker skins; since skins hold the aromatic compounds, pisco made here is incredibly fragrant.”

Newcomers to the region confirm Elqui is truly unlike any other place on earth; many believe it has “special energies.” “With elevations that vary from sea level to 1500m and a broad range of soil types, Elqui is home to amazingly dry mountains full of quartz with ample water flowing from the Andes mountains,” says Charles Lapostolle of Kappa Pisco. “The dramatic temperature swings between day and night also help give us the ideal array of grapes for making complex, aromatic pisco.”

While some brandies are by-products of the winemaking process, distilled from pressed skins, pulp and seeds, Chilean Pisco is made with fresh new wine specifically fermented for its production. Distillations are done in single batches (the law forbids continuous distillation) and many producers employ double and triple distillations. Piscos are produced in a range of proofs, but those designed for export are all 40% abv.

A Wide Color Palette

From a taste perspective, Chilean Pisco’s most distinguishing characteristic is age. All piscos are required to age for half a year, which gives them an appealing smoothness, yet the law allows for infinite age regimens beyond this. The three official classifications are “transparent” (six months in stainless steel or inactive wood); “guarda” (stored in active French or American oak for at least 180 days) and “aged” (aged in active French or American oak for one year, though most producers age for two or more). The result is a wide range of colors and flavors—from clear, bright and floral to dark, rich and caramelized and everything in between.  

Pisco’s Premium  Renaissance

Though Chile has been turning out pisco for centuries, the entire industry is shifting toward more premium production. Roxana Jiménez, manager for Pisco Chile’s export program, speculates this may have begun in 2000 when domestic consumption started to decline, prices plummeted and quality suffered. What followed was a comeback tale of sorts, as the industry sought to regain market share and discovered that consumer palates were far more demanding.

The government got involved and the Pisco Chile trade group was formed in 2009. Distilleries began experimenting with new techniques—which sometimes meant returning to ancient, artisanal techniques—and a number of small boutique distillers entered the field alongside large producers. “The artisanal piscos I’ve sampled from Chile have been incredibly high-quality,” says Wondrich. “Producers are using the 18th century techniques and when I have people taste them, they are really surprised.”

One high-profile newcomer is Kappa, created by the Marnier-Lapostolle family of France’s Grand Marnier and the Chilean wine brand Casa Lapostolle. At their hotel near the winery, they offered a Grand Pisco Sour (with Grand Marnier) which was so successful, they became intrigued with the spirit. “After all, Grand Marnier is Cognac and there are a lot of similarities between Cognac and Pisco,” says Charles Lapostolle. The company started trials employing French vinification and distillation techniques to coax out maximum extraction of aromas (they use fragrant Muscat grapes exclusively), and even brought over a copper still from Cognac. Kappa—named for one of the stars in the Southern Cross Constellation—was officially launched in 2011.

“Pisco is unique among other grape distillates,” says Lapostolle. “It’s permitted to age in wood [unlike Peruvian Pisco] but not required to do so [like Cognac]; this gives distillers a lot of freedom.” Because of their Cognac roots, the Lapostolles “obviously think oak treatment is great; in Chile, it gives a broader scope to the pisco category as a whole,” he says. Kappa pisco see approximately one year in French barrels.

Quality amongst large, traditional producers has jumped as well. Capel, a cooperative established in 1938, grows grapes in every permitted pisco region—they are the largest producer of pisco in the world, and currently the only brand with nationwide U.S. distribution on two of their Piscos (the transparent Capel, $19, and Alto del Carmen, a lightly wood-aged reserve, $22). “We recognize that aging in wood gives a complexity that consumers like,” explains Capel’s Marcos. “However, the wood must respect the fruity character of the pisco and not overwhelm it.”

A Natural Fit Behind the Bar

As pisco producers looked to international markets, the U.S.—specifically New York City—jumped out as the logical first target. “We are not so much focused on sales right now,” says Jiménez. “We are working to educate; to teach people to distinguish the different types of pisco and how to best enjoy it.” And the focus is trade: “There was a pisco push in Miami a decade back, but it was focused on consumers, not trade. We need bartenders to get behind pisco if it is going to succeed.”

Recipe: Santiago Sour

1½ oz. Chilean pisco
¾ oz. simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water by volume)
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
¼ oz. fresh orange juice
½ oz. Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon

Shake first 4 ingredients with ice. Strain
into a chilled cocktail glass and carefully float ½ oz.
Chilean Cabernet on top (it’s easier to float the wine
if it’s poured from a sherry glass or similar rather than
from the bottle; simply pour it gently over the back
of a barspoon held just above the drink).

Recommended pisco: Any pisco that hasn’t been aged
in American oak barriques for more than a year or so.
This works particularly well with aromatic and
artisanal Piscos.

Yet aside from the Pisco Sour, there isn’t a real history of serious mixology in Chile (in its native land, 80 percent of pisco is consumed with cola). Which is ironic, since Pisco is one of the most mixable spirits on the planet, says Wondrich. It offers a mixologist the best of both worlds: It’s incredibly easy to mix with, yet adds distinctive aromatics and character. “Vodka brings alcohol to a cocktail, while pisco brings flavor,” Wondrich describes. “The so-called ‘neutral’ piscos add body and subtle flavor, while the aromatic ones add a whole new dimension to a cocktail; it’s sweet without being sugary and incredibly fragrant with honeysuckle, jasmine and citrus blossom. Piscos are remarkably clean compared with many other brandies.”

Experimenting behind the bar, Wondrich combined lime juice and simple, brightly-flavored ingredients with the clear Piscos; he substituted the darker-hued aged versions in place of other aged spirits in fancy 19th century cocktails (Manhattans, drinks with bitters and topped with Champagne, etc.). His favorite Pisco Sour is low on egg white and flavored with Cedrón leaves (aka lemon verbena). One of Wondrich’s most addictive concoctions is the Santiago Sour, which is topped with another native ingredient—Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.

“As we start to see a greater variety of piscos from Chile being imported here, the mixology community will begin to experience what makes them so unique, and how much diversity there is from distillery to distillery,” says Wondrich. “Chilean Piscos will give bartenders important new colors in their palette.”


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