My obsession with pisco predates my adventures in South America.
I’ve always had a fascination with the ‘sour’ and its perfect balance of four ingredients – spirit, egg white, sugar syrup and citrus. Success depends on getting the balance between them just right.
The amaretto sour was the entry point for me. Made with what I can only describe as liquid marzipan, it almost felt like cheating. Surely a mocktail in disguise? From there it was a quick slide towards its Latino cousin, the pisco sour. It wasn’t that long ago that it was rare for bars to even stock pisco so I’d often make them myself. It was around the time I worked for hospitality giant Merivale, and I remember incurring the wrath of Merivale’s head of bars at the time when he discovered I was blending the cocktail rather than shaking it (a crime in the world of mixology). I arrived at work one morning to find a photocopy of the recipe from a cocktail bible with the method highlighted for my benefit. Noted Paul.
Regardless of protocol I still blend my pisco sours. Because no amount of shaking (and I can shake!) matches the foaminess that blending creates.
So… what is pisco? It’s actually a brandy, made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit. When the Spanish rocked up to Peru, they decided to start making it rather than importing something similar from Spain. The spirit used to travel to Spain via the port of Pisco so they decided to call it… Pisco.
With pisco sours a firm favourite of mine for a while now, it was always a dream of mine to visit the home of pisco. Or rather homes. Because depending on who you ask, pisco is from Peru and Chile and the two countries have bickered for years over ownership of the Appellation of Origin.
So, what’s the difference? Different grapes to start with. Peruvian pisco is distilled to proof in copper pots while Chilean is aged to a higher proof then cut back with water and stored in oak barrels. The Peruvians use the whole grape, the Chileans distil only the skin. Peru is filled with old-fashioned, tiny producers and Chile is dominated by larger, more commercial operations.
I’ve now tried pisco in Chile and Peru and because I prefer my pisco ensconsed in a sour, I would be hard pressed to tell the difference to be honest. I was more interested in the way each culture drank their pisco. In Chile they love a piscola – pisco and cola. It didn’t really work for me, but nothing mixed with cola really works for me (yes I’m talking to you Fernet & cola – the national drink of Argentina).
The Peruvians will shot it at home and drink pisco cocktails when out. When it’s not a pisco sour it’s usually a Chilcano, a refreshing mix of pisco, ginger ale and lime, served in a tall glass with lots of ice. I was a big fan of this drink.
While in Peru I dropped into Tacama, the oldest winery in South America which has produced pisco since 1880. They use 8 grapes from 5 regions to produce 1 million litres of wine and 200,000 litres of pisco each year. Their cheaper stuff is designed for cocktails and the top end range is for sipping. While the latter was definitely smoother, it didn’t exactly convert me to wanting to drink it straight. The pisco nets out to be between 42-44% proof depending on range and it’s one person’s job to actually taste and determine the potency. How many sips before one loses the ability to judge I wonder?
Whichever side of the pisco fence you sit on, we can probably all agree that one country who certainly can’t claim ownership is Australia. But that didn’t stop an enterprising grower in WA’s Margaret River from getting in on the action. A few years ago, Katia and I were driving through the vineyards when I spotted a sign that read ‘Pisco’.
“Stop the car, RIGHT NOW!” I screeched.
Pisco? In Western Australia? I had to investigate.
Harmans, a cellar door in Cowaramup making premium wines had also branched into pisco.
“But how?” I asked them in a confused voice. That’s akin to spruiking Australian Champagne, Australian Port or Aussie tequila. You (legally) can’t. Give it a try and count how many seconds it takes before being swooped on by lawyers.
At the time I figured it was their fight not mine and bought a couple of bottles. Sensational stuff. The winemaker has since received numerous cease and desist letters from the Peruvian government ordering him to stop branding his product as Pisco. All he’s done is move production to a new label, Wise Wine. It’s naughty of him but while it’s around I might just buy another bottle because you can never have too much pisco on hand…