South America's pisco enjoys North American revival
October 11th, 2011
09:10 AM ET
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Take one part pub crawl and one part contest mixed vigorously with 10 bartenders on a mini bus, and what do you get? One spirited competition to determine who makes the best drink using pisco, the South American brandy making a comeback in the United States.

Long a fixture in liquor cabinets and bars in Peru and Chile, pisco is popping up in the United States amid an obsession with craft cocktails. From January to July, export sales of the South American grape brandy grew to $2.3 million, up 139% over the same period in 2010, fueled by increased sales in the United States, Peruvian news agency Andina reports.

And bartenders who don't shy away from the term "mixologist" are relishing the opportunities for experimentation that pisco offers. One such opportunity arose in August, when a handful of Atlanta mixologists were invited to create their own variations of pisco punch and serve them to their peers, who voted for their favorite in terms of taste, creativity and ability to be replicated.

"Pisco is fruity and aromatic, so there's a lot of room to play around with other spirits and fruits to bring out different flavors," said Brent Gatehouse, who tends bar at Italian restaurant Ecco.

"People are always looking for the next exotic spirit. They don't want to just drink vodka sodas or martinis anymore."

As pisco's popularity grows in the United States, its country of appellation remains a topic of dispute in South America. Pisco grapes are grown in Chile and Peru, and both Andean nations have adopted it as a national spirit. The dispute has played out in numerous decrees and regulations from both countries, with Peru claiming the historic upper hand and boasting a commitment to making it the old-fashioned way. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine has urged the two countries to make nice and work together toward a common solution. Mainly, the outcome has been aggressive international marketing campaigns from both countries.

Pisco's origins in the United States are less controversial. It first arrived in San Francisco in the 1850s, when it was easier to ship a batch from Peru than to transport whiskey overland from the East Coast.

The owner of San Francisco's Bank Exchange popularized the cocktail as pisco punch until Prohibition came along in the 1920s and ruined the fun. Pisco has resurfaced in recent years in the United States, most commonly as pisco sours, an American adaptation of the whiskey sour, made with lime juice, simple syrup, egg whites and a dash of bitters. Pre-packaged pisco sour mix also exists for those less inclined to do the legwork.

The president of the Peruvian Exporters' Association credits strategic partnering with boosting international pisco sales, specifically highlighting distillery Hacienda La Caravedo, the oldest working distillery in the Americas. Pisco Porton, sponsor of last month's competitive bar crawl, is made at Hacienda La Caravedo.

Indeed, the contest's participants welcomed the respite from the monotony of pouring shots and mixing martinis. The winning entry from Ecco's Gatehouse featured a concoction of papaya, plum bitters, orange rind and pepper. Calling his creation "respiracion de Inca," Gatehouse topped it off with a squeeze from half a piece of dragonfruit, dropping the fruit's carcass into each cup before serving it to his eager peers.

Another worthy offering from Empire State South was dressed up with lavender sprigs from the restaurant's urban garden. Erik Alsandor of Publik Draft House mixed pineapples, Bartlett pears and honey, garnished with plantains, as the self-described "blue-collar" entry among the "bourgeois b*****ds" from the rest of the entrants.

In a startling display of bravura, the folks at Iberian Pig surprised everyone with a life-sized ice sculpture of a bottle of pisco that spouted punch.

The owners of H. Harper Station, the venue with the misfortune of being the last on the boozy bar crawl contest, marinated peaches in pisco, yellow chartreuse and housemade ginger beer to create its own "peach exchange" in a nod to the first purveyor of pisco punch.

"It's too bad, but we enjoyed the process of coming up with a recipe," said H. Harper owner Jerry Slater. "Pisco is a lot of fun to work with. And sharing it with others who truly appreciate your effort is always a good time."

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Filed under: Cocktail Recipes • Culture • Food History • Peru • Sip

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Steven

    I love Peruvian Pisco !!! specially the pisco sour !!!

    October 24, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  2. Piscolero

    Pisco Chileno is the best... No need to try all these silly recipes. Pisco sour and piscola are all you need. I'm glad the beverage is catching on in this country, regardless of the origin debate. Pisco es Chileno!!!

    October 13, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  3. Lynn Ann

    It does not matter where pisco comes from, it is still Satans beverage. If you are drinking Satans beverage then you are supporting the Antichrist that is Obama.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Satan

      Dass RIGHT! KUTGW!

      October 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  4. Guillermo

    There is no controversy . There is truth in one side and then there is deception or make believe on the other . There is a city called Pisco in Peru for hundreds of years and that is where pisco originated..... need more explanation than that ? city of Pisco ..liquor of pIsco get it ? period.
    The problem is that since Peru is not an important country in world affairs or in international commerce ( at least not worldwide or to the US) , few people know this outside of Peru and this is why Chile takes advantage of this to use the name.
    Many chilean companies grow the grapes and/or produce their "pisco" in Peru and then ship it from Chile under a chilean brand...
    Furthermore,you know what the first destiny for peruvian pisco exports is ?? ( suspense) yeah, you guessed right : CHILE
    The pisco sour was invented in the Hotel Maury in downtown Lima in the mid 20 century ( Peru).

    October 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Cartman

      The real problem is ..... whothefcares?

      October 12, 2011 at 10:17 am |
      • robert

        you should care if you want to try the best because peruvian's is superior.

        October 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Elizabeth Payne

      Pisco is from PERU not Chile AND Peru, and Pisco Sour originated in PERU. I tend to side with Guillermo, sorry i don't take anyone's order on working together, this rightfully from PERU.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  5. Barada

    Pisco is ok. It doesn't matter if it is from Peru or Chile. For a real treat try Singani from Bolivia.

    October 11, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  6. Vona

    Peruvian Pisco is the best. I brought back about 6 bottles. Sadly, they're all empty now but I've saved the best for a display.
    'Mosto Verde Gran Herencia'. I so wish I could buy Pisco in Canada.

    October 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • robert

      you can buy it online.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  7. bla

    I have an unopened bottle of Pisco that my father in law brought us from a business trip to Peru. Guess I should try out some of these cocktails, they sound pretty good.

    October 11, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  8. Andres

    Pisco is peruvian. The so called chilean pisco is only a cheap liquor, since they are not able to grow good quality grapes in their soil. Besides, there is a 400 years old city in Peru called Pisco (you may check it in Google earth). Chileans founded a city named Pisco just a few years ago. I rest my case.

    October 11, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  9. David

    Pisco from Bolivia is also excellent. Look up Singani...

    October 11, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  10. Lila

    I had pisco when I was in Peru, it can be really strong. Didn't like all those years ago but I'll try it again.

    October 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  11. hugo

    Finally the world will start enjoying the best drink ever made..........

    October 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  12. RObert Brunson

    Pisco is great, but the REAL one come from Peru, not Chile.

    October 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Elsa

      Oh, but you are sadly mistaken. Chilean Pisco is the best and orginal.

      October 11, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
      • Lucy

        You are totally wrong, Elsa. I understand you guys want to be proud of it, but unfortunately, 100% Peruvian, sorry. The good news is that most people in the world who know about pisco know this.

        October 12, 2011 at 1:37 am |
    • Editha

      It is true the real comes from Peru and not Chile. But the chileans know how to make it better. I have tried both, and definetely the chilean has more flavor!

      October 12, 2011 at 3:37 am |
      • Philojazz

        Editha, I totally agree with you. Viva Chile!!

        October 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  13. Karen

    Try a Cuzco Fizz
    2 parts Pisco
    1 part St-Germain
    5–6 Green Grapes
    ½–¾ part Freshly Squeezed Lime Juice
    top with Club Soda
    Method: Muddle grapes in the base of a shaker. Add pisco, lime juice, St-Germain and ice. Shake vigorously, strain into an ice-filled Collins glass and top with soda. Then drink a toast to Peruvian Pisco. True, it is distilled from grapes of Spanish origin, not French, but it makes a lovely fizz, so we are willing to overlook this.

    October 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  14. FrabjousOne

    Last time I was in Chili the popular drink was Pisco and Coca-Cola: Piscola.

    October 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • robert

      it is disgusting, try pisco sour, and if you get a real expensive pisco, have it on the rocks.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  15. AJM6887

    Representing Atlanta! We certainly know how to mix down here!

    October 11, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Rigel54


      October 11, 2011 at 9:36 pm |

    Never did a pub crawl – sounds like fun !

    October 11, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • RichardHead@TX4U

      I did a face plant on a curb once...

      October 11, 2011 at 9:29 am |

        Richard you have to pace yourself – that's what I've been told to do .... Lol

        October 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
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