I got set up with some Peruvian Pisco recently and I was able to try some different brands and types of this little-known spirit. If you’ve been to Peru, of course, you’ve probably drunk plenty of Pisco sours. It’s a common welcome drink at hotels and it’s a freebie to lure you in for dinner at competitive restaurants in Cusco. At high-end hotels and bars, however, they make a far superior version with better ingredients, so it’s worth seeking out a good one just to see how good it can be in the hands of a skilled bartender.
I had never drunk it neat before, however, and didn’t even have any idea there were different varietals and blends. In the U.S., after all, it’s pretty hard to even find Pisco in a bar and even then it’s often a Chilean version that many experts say is inferior. So what does it taste like? Well, different, first of all. Pisco occupies that no man’s land of 20 percent alcohol, stronger than wine but half the strength of most spirits. Plus, like brandy or cognac, it’s made from grapes and not grains. But it’s not aged in barrels. It’s not aged at all actually. So it comes across as not all that smooth or mellowed, but more interesting and aromatic than a straight spirit like vodka and not as harsh as some of the firewater you are likely to come across elsewhere in Latin America.
There are different versions based on different grapes, but all are distilled and clear. In Peru you might find varietals like Torontel, and Italia (and you can special order them in the U.S.), but the varieties are usually mixed together in a blend called Acholado. The other common version you’ll likely find is Quebranta, which is non-aromatic and perhaps more elegant. Unless you’re intending to become an expert, you’ll be fine either way, especially if you are planning to use it for cocktails.
In my opinion, Pisco is a great undiscovered spirit when it comes to cocktails. It is less boring than vodka but blends in better with most juices than white rum or tequila (especially cheap white rum or tequila). There’s no oak aging, so it goes well with a lot of different mixers. Buy a bottle of BarSol Pisco if you see it on a shelf or try a Pisco Punch or Pisco Sour next time you’re in a well-stocked bar with a bartender who knows his or her stuff.