Pisco is Peru’s national liquor and, while many have heard of the pisco sour, the national drink that is often handed to you as you are checking in to your hotel, many don’t know exactly what either are.
Pisco is a type of brandy, made from grapes. Its origin is hotly contested between Peru and Chile, however, one would do well not to open this Pandora’s box while in either country. Suffice it to say that distillation processes vary between the two countries and varieties are more clearly broken down in Peru.
Speaking of varieties, as Pisco is made from grapes, there is a lot more to it than you might think, beyond the quality of the brand as is true with any type of liquor.
As with wine, the type of grapes used will change the taste of the resulting brandy. In some cases, only one type of grape is used. In others, there is a blend of two or more. Other ways to differentiate between pisco varieties is whether or not it is aromatic.
With all the possible variations, one of the best ways to understand more about these differences is by going to a pisco tasting. There, you can experience some of the main variations and, depending on where you go, try some macerados. These are piscos that have had some type of fruit, herb or spice marinated in it so that it takes on the flavor. Some of the items used for this include cinnamon, strawberries, mint, eucalyptus and much more.
The best way to sample piscos is by going to Ica where most of them are produced. Here, you can visit a variety of vineyards specializing in pisco and engage in tastings just as you would with wine.
If you aren’t going to Ica, there are many restaurants and bars that can help you out, especially in Lima. Soon to open in the capital city, El Pisquerito (formerly in Cusco) is one of the absolute best places to sample. Check the website to get the information once the new location is open: http://espiritusdelbar.com as well as to learn more about pisco (currently only in Spanish).
El Pisquerito and its original pisco drinks were developed by Hans Hilburg, well-known in the world of Peruvian pisco. In the meantime, until the bar opens, you can visit Astrid y Gaston, the famed flagship restaurant of Gaston Acurio, and for whom Hilburg once designed cocktails.
In Arequipa, the Biondi store located opposite the Santa Catalina Monastery will be happy to explain more to you about how pisco is made as well as give you a sampling of their product. The brandy is good quality and reasonably enough priced to take some home with you as gifts.
Speaking of brands, stay away from the ubiquitous Vargas, used for happy hour drinks in many bars and clubs. Debatable as to whether it is even pisco, it surely is the lowest shelf quality and guaranteed to make you reach for the Advil the following morning.
While in Cusco, stop by Marcelo Batata restaurant where pisco drinks as well as a wide variety of macerations are specialties. If you ask ahead of time, a tasting and explanation can be arranged for you. They also offer a cooking class which includes learning to make the renowned pisco sour.
Although there are many different pisco drinks, and some piscos that are of sipping quality, you should definitely try at least one pisco sour while in the country. The drink is made with pisco, lemon juice, sugar and egg whites with a garnish of bitters. The refreshing taste is one that is sure to captivate you if you give it a chance at a place that’s known for them.
Originally from the US, Maureen Santucci now calls the ancient Peruvian capital of Cusco home, where she has lived for almost 5 years, working as a travel consultant as well as writing for Fodors Travel Guide. This article was written on behalf of Aracari Travel, providers of custom luxury itineraries all over Peru.