Pisco, the Spirit of Chile


Many wine producing regions also make a mark producing spirits. In Chile it’s Pisco which is South America’s take on brandy. Regardless of where it’s from brandy is made from the distillation of wine. Two countries produce a brandy called Pisco, Peru and Chile.

Distillers in Chile who want to produce Pisco must start by growing their own grapes. More than a dozen are acceptable for use but a small handful of aromatic varieties account for the bulk of production. Muscat, Pedro Jiminez, and Torentel are the key varieties.  Production methodologies vary with some distilling their spirit more than once to achieve a level of refinement and a smoother end product. Quantity wise most Pisco is bottled without aging but some producers age the spirit in oak to achieve different results. Oak aging affects not only the flavor profile but the color which takes on a light copper hue with time in barrel. These aged expressions are designated as Reservado, Gran or Especial. These expressions come closest to bringing to mind Cognac, perhaps the most famous region for Brandy. Some producers focus on blending more than one grape while others stick to a single variety for each expression.  

Alcohol content in Chilean Pisco most commonly hovers right around 40% but can occasionally be as low as 30% or as high as 46%. The expressions that are distilled multiple times tend to be higher in alcohol even though that is sometimes dropped somewhat by the addition of water prior to bottling.

Pisco is deeply embedded in Chilean culture and everyone it seems drinks Pisco Sours, often prior to a meal. I spoke to Viña Koyle winemaker Cristobal Undurraga about Pisco and asked him how it fit into his life. Undurraga said, “I’m a real big lover of this grape distillate from Chile. The culture in the Pisco region is fantastic, and quality is going more sophisticated. Personally I prefer Pisco Sours, but it’s also very popular in Piscola, with 2/3 Coca Cola and lot of ice.” He’s certainly right as most Pisco is consumed in a variety of cocktails; the Pisco Sour is undoubtedly the most popular. However Pisco can also be sipped neat. The barrel aged expressions are most appropriate for enjoying in this manner.

I tasted through a number of different expressions of Chilean Pisco both in cocktails and neat. Here are my thoughts about some specific bottles all of which are available in the U.S.

Pisco Mistral Anejado en Roble ($15)

A bit of heat is discernible from the first whiff here. Toast, vanilla bean and yellow peach aromas are all in play. The intense palate is layered with yellow fruit, spice and hints of dark baker’s chocolate. Peppercorn and bits of sage present on the solid finish.

Alto del Carmen Pisco D.O.C. (The essence of Muscat) ($20)

A massive burst of appealing aromatics lead the charge here. Toasted nuts, lychee fruit and wisps of apricot are all in evidence. Bits of anise intersperse with continued fruit on the layered palate. The warming finish shows off a dusting of dark chocolate. Delicious sipped and an exceptional cocktail ingredient.

Pisco Capel ($22)

Wisps of Thyme underpin the more prominent citrus aromas. Mango, papaya and a complement of spices dot the palate. Sour yellow fruits and a touch of heat are evident on the above average finish.  This one is best suited for mixing.

Alto del Carmen Pisco Reservado ($24)

Aromas of peaches and white flowers fill the nose. The ultra-smooth palate features stones fruit, bits of marzipan and a hint of white pepper. Bing cherry and bits of wild strawberry are evident on the long and memorable finish. Sip this beauty neat.

Pisco Control C  ($27)

Intense citrus aromas leap from the nose along with hints of vanilla bean. The palate is clean and fresh with white fruit and continued citrus notes. Gentle herb characteristics lead the solid finish. This fresh, vibrant Pisco is perfect for cocktails.

Pisco Mistral Nobel ($35)

Toasty oak and bits of vanilla fill the nose. The palate is loaded with dried stone fruit and hints of rugelach. Apricot and bits of persimmon are evident on the long finish. This is an impressive Pisco that deserves to be sipped neat and contemplated.

Pisco Waqar ($38)

Rode petal and stone fruit aromas dominate the nose. Fresh apricot, dried herbs and white pepper are evident on the palate. The clean, crisp finish shows off a tiny bit of heat and a hint of dark chocolate. A solid bet for use in Pisco Sours.

Pisco Sour

2 ½ parts Pisco
1 egg white
1/2 part simple syrup
3/4 part fresh lemon juice

Fill a shaker with ice and top with egg white, Pisco, lemon juice and simple syrup. Cover and shake then pour into a rocks glass. Top with some bitters and serve.

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