Describing pisco in a nutshell is no easy task.
Some compare the South American spirit to grappa, because both are distilled from grapes. Others relate it to tequila, as it often has similar herbal, earthy flavors. Duggan McDonnell, owner of Encanto Pisco says the complex spirit has "this round viscosity that cognacs offer, with the bright aromas of gin, and the tropical nuances that only tequila and rum can offer."
"it's one of the most exciting and interesting spirits being imported into the States today."
The truth is, comparisons to other liquors often fall flat because pisco has its own unique personality. The spectrum of flavors found within the category is untamed, broad and varied; some piscos are earthy and dry with a musky funk, while others taste distinctly citrus-forward or have delicately floral characteristics. Pisco is not a shy spirit, but rather bold and rustic, unconventional and often unrefined, capturing the rough terroir of Peru and Chile in many nuanced ways. For this reason, it's one of the most exciting and interesting spirits being imported into the States today.
Made primarily in Peru and Chile (both countries claim that they were the first to create pisco), production guidelines differ in each country. In Peru, pisco can be made from eight different grape varieties (quebranta, mollar, negro corriente or comun, uvina, italia, moscatel, torontel and albillo). It can only be distilled one time, and then must be bottled at proof, meaning distillers can't add any water, sugar, or other additives. This practice makes pisco unique in a world where most liquors are diluted down from high alcohol levels to be more palatable before being packaged. Peruvian pisco cannot be aged in wood, but does rest in stainless steel and glass for three months or more.
In Chile, the number of grapes allowed is much fewer—only three kinds (pedro ximenez, torontel, and moscatel) are typically included. From there, the rules of production are less stringent than in Peru. A batch can be distilled as many times as needed, water can be added to reduce the proof, and barrel aging is permitted.
Decoding the Labels
If you see Pisco Puro printed on a bottle, that spirit was produced with a single grape variety (which will usually be mentioned) whereas Acholado indicates a blend of multiple grapes. Most Acholados are made by blending various single variety distillates together, though producers can blend during any stage of the fermentation and distillation process. Another style of pisco called Mosto Verde is made from grape must that is only partially fermented, yielding a softly sweet personality to the final spirit.
How to Drink It
While we tested these piscos neat to get a feel for their unadulterated personalities, McDonnell, who also runs a pisco-focused bar in San Francisco called Cantina, says that cocktails are one of the best ways to become familiar with the spirit. Like other tropical spirits (such as rum, tequila, or cachaca), pisco works wonders in drinks that feature a little citrus and sugar, like a pisco sour with fresh zesty lime juice and frothy egg white or pisco punch with sunny pineapple and lemon.
We tasted through 25 different piscos, exploring what makes the category so wild and wonderful. Here are our 10 favorites, the standouts from an impressive bunch.
BarSol Pisco Primero Quebranta
Since 2002, BarSol has produced an array of styles of pisco, including single varietal bottlings and blends. Distilled from quebranta grapes grown in the Ica valley in Peru, BarSol Pisco Primero Quebranta ($26) is a balanced spirit with an easygoing attitude, highly recommended for those new to pisco thanks to its soft approach. While the Quebranta grape usually imparts a focused earthy quality to the final product, the BarSol tastes surprisingly bright. Lightly sweet citrus leads the flavor, which dries out with a subsequent swath of dried grass and hay. And unlike many others on this list, which can take a bit of effort to source, BarSol is fairly easy to find in liquor stores and bars across the country.
Macchu Pisco Quebranta
Led by one of the only female pisco producers in Peru, CEO Melanie da Trindade-Asher, Macchu Pisco is a family-run operation based in Lima. A medium-bodied pisco with an attitude, the Macchu Pisco Quebranta ($26) comes on strong with a brusque bite of alcohol that slowly backs off, revealing a fresh lime, lemongrass, and rustic root profile. Its herbal, earthy quality is reminiscent of tequila or other agave spirits like sotol, but with the strong liquor-bite that's present, it works best served in cocktails.
Piscologia Pisco Acholado
Piscologia Acholado ($35) is one of the more sippable blends out there with a distinct personality making it worth getting to know. This blend of quebranta, torontel, and italia grapes smells like an appealing bundle of pecans with flecks of honey, supported with a deep mineral crustiness. Produced by Topa Spirits in Peru, this pisco has an even symmetry between sugar and heat. Hints of banana weave throughout the flavor, which retains that dry nuttiness the aroma promises, mixed with a gritty earthy base note that lingers well after the finish.
Santiago Quierolo Acholado
This Lima, Peru operation was established in 1880, and today they produce a variety of wines and piscos from their own vineyards (not something every pisco producer can boast). Their Santiago Quierolo Acholado ($26) blend of italia, negra criolla, moscatel, and quebranta grapes has dark ripe berry flavor with wisps of fresh sugar cane and cinnamon that deepen and contrast a brighter grassy element, ending in sparks of black pepper. It has a fair amount of rugged heat—this stuff will stand up to other spirits in cocktail form.
Campo de Encanto Grand and Noble Acholado
Crafted in part by San Francisco's Duggan McDonnell, Campo de Encanto Grand and Noble Acholado ($40) is a force to be reckoned with. A blend of five grape varieties (quebranta, mollar, italia, moscatel and torontel) distilled in Peru, the spirit is an amalgamation of flowers and earth with both dry and sweet characteristics that oscillate between aggressive and somewhat flirty. McDonnell says he developed the recipe primarily for use in cocktails, and it delivers on both sipping and mixing fronts with bright lime and cinnamon elements, braced by a slight salinity that evokes the distillery's proximity to the coast.
Named after an Andean spiritual dance that represents a fight between angels and demons, Macchu Pisco's La Diablada ($38) does have a certain tension between soft floral flavors and aggressive minerality. The blend of mostly aromatic grapes (torontel, italia, moscatel and quebranta, which are blended from batches of single distillates) lends a musty vanilla rose petal quality to the abundant fragrance, which is grounded with a grilled lime essence. As you sip, the floral qualities continue but darken to a taste more akin to violets mingling with wet stone. This is a very well-balanced and interesting spirit that expands and surprises with each new sip.
One of the most outstanding brands we discovered from the overall tasting, Peru's Tabernero produces both wine and pisco with obvious skill. The Quebranta and the Acholado styles were both shockingly delicious with big, buttery textures and confident flavors, but we loved the Tabernero Italia ($20) the most. Tangy Meyer lemon and perfumy flowers frame the aroma and linger through each sip. White honeysuckle, grilled orange, and pine needle flavors also make an appearance in this rich, balanced sipper. Flavor-wise, you can't beat the Tabernero piscos, and since they hover around the budget-friendly $20 range, try tasting them side-by-side to get a good feel for how the different grape varieties influence this spirit.
De La Motta Italia
While this pisco is woven from the same grape as the Tabernero Italia, there couldn't be two more diametrically opposed interpretations. Lima's De La Motta take a strictly floral approach with their De La Motta Italia ($40), which explodes with bright grapefruit and lily on the aroma. The overall profile is thinner with very little alcoholic bite, and largely without rich earthiness or round sugars to balance out the aromatics. It's perky, innocently sweet and would add a refreshing floral component to any cocktail. De La Motta also makes a tasty Quebranta with more earthy qualities for those looking for something less aromatic.
Favorite Mosto Verde
You may have spotted Pisco Porton ($37) in cocktail bars where you live, and rightly so: it was by far the most impressive Mosto Verde of the bottles we tried. Made from a blend of quebranta, albilla, and torontel grapes, the pisco is distilled in the Andes mountains in Peru at what the company claims is the oldest distillery in the Americas. Porton has a distinct rustic funk (in a good way) that defines its character. A fresh rain and barley scent leads the fragrance. Flavor-wise it walks a fine line between tasting refined and rugged thanks to a fair amount of alcoholic heat that lingers on the palate, and hints of tobacco pop in and out of the flavor, bolstered with moments of warm vanilla. With so much romantic complexity, there's no mystery as to why this brand has found a permanent home on many stateside menus.
Favorite Chilean Pisco
While this list is primarily dominated by Peruvian brands, Chile is no stranger to pisco production, and there are several brands coming out of the country that are worth checking out if you want to explore the differences between the different approaches to the spirit. We especially liked the muscat-based Kappa ($35) with its lovely caramel and pear scent. The aroma suggests a big body, but the liquid's texture is relatively thin with tart lemon and grape elements driving the flavor. The sugar profile is subdued, yielding an overall crisp spirit that lacks much of the earthy, funky personality that typically defines Peruvian pisco.
Note: All piscos were provided as samples for review consideration except the Pisco Porton.