Ask the Expert: What is Pisco, Anyway?

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Ask the Expert: What is Pisco, Anyway?

In our new Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.

Pisco has become a trendy spirit in the past several years and you can bank on it sticking around, too. Besides making for excellent cocktails—and as great as a well-made pisco sour is, the spirit is put to use in all types of drinks beyond that classic—it’s versatile and vibrant all on its own. So what in the world is it?

Pisco is a type of brandy, and brandy is a spirit distilled from fermented fruit juice, including wine. Pisco hails from Peru, although the folks in Chile will argue quite passionately with you about that. The story behind the feud and whose pisco is the real pisco touches on subjects as light as centuries of politics and war, so for this discussion we’re keeping it simple. Pisco is Peruvian. Its Chilean counterpart has far different regulations for its production too, so ultimately you can view them however you want, but keep in mind they’re different.

Speaking of regulations, beyond being a brandy, what other requirements define pisco?
Pisco can be made from eight different grapes, classified as either aromatic or non-aromatic varietals. The major player here is Quebranta, which accounts for the bulk of pisco you encounter.

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It must be distilled from wine, as opposed to pomace, the solids which remain after pressing grapes. Geographically, pisco must hail from one of five regions in Peru, with sunny, southern Ica serving as a de facto home base.

Pisco must be single distilled, and distilled to proof, falling in between 38 and 48% ABV. Pisco cannot be aged in wood, although it is rested in nonreactive containers made traditionally from clay, and more commonly today stainless steel or glass.

There are also different types of pisco. A puro is made from a single grape varietal, whereas an acholado is a blend of two or more varietals.

Meanwhile, mosto verdes are piscos which are distilled from wine which hasn’t finished fermentation, meaning its sweet and has sugars still remaining. It therefore takes far more grapes to produce a mosto verde, generally making it a more prized offering, as well as a more expensive one. There are both mosto verde single varietal piscos, as well as mosto verde acholados.

Now go and mix yourself that pisco sour—the golden rule is 3 ounces of pisco to 1 ounce of simple syrup, 1 ounce of lime juice, and 1 egg white—or try a personal favorite, the El Capitan, a Manhattan with pisco replacing the whiskey.


Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.

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