Pisco – Booze of the Gods!

By 10 December, 2010

When grapes came to the New World in the 16th century, first to the Parras, Coahuila, Mexico and later to Peru, Chile and elsewhere in South America, it was with the fervent devotees of the True Cross and the conquistadores. Whilst one was exercised in proselytizing the indigenous population, the other was setting up encomiendas (tribute in the form of labour etc.) and trousering the glittering prizes. What wine there was to be had – was devotional rather than recreational.

The origins of pisco, linguistically at least, come from the Quechua word for little bird, pisqu. The Pisco Valley, 150 miles south of Lima, the port of Pisco and the Ica region in which they lie – are at the heart of the origin, production and exportation of pisco.

Pisco (and its Bolivian relation singani) have taken a circuitous route to market but their chance came after a ban on wine production was put in place by the Viceroyalty of Peru during the 17th century. The idea was to protect imported Spanish wine and aguardiente, such as Orujo, from colonial competitors. The result was to lead ultimately to a distilling tradition and the emergence of three national drinks: Peruvian pisco, Chilean pisco and Bolivian singani. The main areas of production are respectively, Ica (Peru), Elqui (Chile) and Tajira (Bolivia).

What are Pisco and Singani?

In essence – and by method of production – they are 40%abv brandies distilled from fermented grape juice or grapes crushed without the pulp and skin. Nothing new you might think but Pisco and singani are different. For a start, they are made with an array of grape varietals – both fragrant and non-fragrant – which give them an enormous range of styles and flavours even before ageing in oak. In contrast, most grape brandies and cognacs use just three predominant varietals and pick up much of their flavour and colour either from added caramel, or vanillin and tannins from ageing in oak barrels.

The first thing that hits you about pisco and singani is the nose. There is a certain floral quality to it and a natural sweetness derived from the type of varietals used. The key to a good pisco, singani, brandy – or cognac for that matter – is to make a good wine before you move on to the distillation process. There isn’t much point distilling poor quality wine as this is merely a recipe for flavourless firewater.

Happy Hour

Pisco and singani are good enough to drink neat as a digestif but they have the versatility and taste not to disappear (like most vodkas and white rums) once immersed in a cocktail.

The Pisco Sour is a good place to start. The sour has its origins in Morris’ Bar in Lima. Victor V. “Gringo” Morris, working on the Elliott Stubbs’ classic whisky sour decided in his wisdom to introduce pisco as the ‘active’ ingredient and the rest – as they say – is delicious. It wasn’t long before Lima hotels, the Maury and the Bolivar, were in on the act, too, and it took the influence of the Americans and Hollywood, via the likes of Ava Gardner and John Wayne – who visited the Maury – to further pisco’s reputation in the US. This is something of an irony because pisco was popular with sailors and California gold miners long before anyone had ever heard of Hollywood but generally speaking they don’t make great ambassadors – brand or otherwise.

The Classic Pisco Sour

Pisco – 2 fl oz
10 Ice Cubes
Lemon or lime juice- 1 fl oz
Syrup – 1 fl oz
Egg white – ½ an egg white or ¼ of a sachet of egg white powder
Angostura Bitters – a dash
Shake and pour

[Source: The Embassy of Peru]

How to make a Pisco Sour:

Other variants you might want to try are Ají with green chilli, Sour de Campo with ginger and honey or Sour Hass, which includes avocado, pineapple and mint. You can also explore the Bolivian variant in cocktails such as Chuflay, Poncho Negro and Yungueñito.

Another established pairing, which is perhaps more common in Peru than either Chile or Bolivia, is to add powdered cocoa (of the type used in a cappuccino) into the sour mix. This is such a delicious combination that every cream liqueur-maker should start to fear for their very existence.

Not just for the Ladies

Pisco con chocolate is a dream and luckily for you Don Javier Navarro, a native of Ica, Peru, has made it a reality and produced the appropriately named, Don Chocolate. The Peruvians have long drunk pisco with chocolate but Don Javier is the first to put the two together in a ready-made product. The result has ignited sufficient interest in Peru to open a debate in the press as to whether Pisco Sour or Pisco con Chocolate is the bebida bandera or national drink.
The Peruvians take pisco very seriously – as you might have guessed – and the first weekend in February since 2003, has been designated as “National Pisco Sour Day”.

There is Madness in the Marketing

The really intriguing story is that although pisco and singani are great products they remain stubbornly difficult to promote outside good cocktails bars and ethnic restaurants in all but their home markets where they are the spirit of choice among the locals across all ages (save minors), classes and cultural affiliations. Whilst you might assume this was always the case, the fact of the matter is that domestic products including pisco have been under pressure from imported spirits like whisky and vodka and the domestic popularity of rum (especially in Peru). Nevertheless pisco’s consumer base far from buckling is evolving and getting stronger. One reason, of course, is cost, but there is also a realization that imported drinks – though aspirant to some – are not necessarily better. There is a certain national pride in being producers of something that can give whisky a run for its money. After all, why would you forego a local product for imported whisky or vodka when it is more versatile, cheaper and in many instances better?

Despite their best efforts, the pisco producers have found the export market a difficult nut to crack. Things are changing, though, and last year for the first time Peruvian exports of pisco eclipsed those of their neighbor and bitter rivals, Chile. Why? The reason is largely down to the rediscovery of pisco in the US.

At the heart of the pisco and singani marketing dilemma is how you go about it. Peru and Chile don’t evoke in the way that Mexico and Brazil do.

It is one of crowning absurdities of consumer culture that substance comes a poor second to appearance. The product can be brilliant but if the marketing is weak few will come to know it and even fewer still will come to distribute it. Tell the consumer that the item is a ‘must have’ and they – ipso facto – must have it. Who says people can’t learn anything from Pavlov’s dogs? The conditioned response is the bedrock of marketing and nowhere is this more true that in the drinks market.

Classic commercial for Pisco Capel:

All bar some

In Britain most pub landlords give you a thousand yard stare if you ask for a cocktail. There’s something about having more than two ingredients – with or without ice – that seems to faze them. It’s taken them the best part of generation to get used to tequila.

In Metroland it is a different matter. They are much more likely to be knowledgeable about the product – even if they don’t stock it – and at least curious. The culture of the barista especially in London has made knowledge power. Nevertheless, venture too far from the metropolis and things are different. Even in a city like Glasgow, which is noted for its dalliance with excess and experimentation, three of the leading cocktail bars could only make you a sour if it didn’t include pisco.

In the US, a Pisco Sour is on the list of all good hotel and cocktail bars and ranks alongside the Margarita, Mojito and Caipirinha as a possible option along with the usual classic cocktails. As a consequence of this most references to it in popular culture – come from the US.

The mystery remains, why is it so difficult to get people to drink something that is great on its own and makes a fantastic cocktail?

Chilean Pisco Brands:
Pisco ABA
Pisco Capel
Pisco Control Guarda
Pisco Bauzá

Peruvian Pisco Brands:
Pisco Soldeica
Peruvian Enterprises

Bolivian Singani Brands:
Casa Real Aniversario
Rujero Colección Privada

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