Before ever setting foot in Chile I occasionally visited Peru to see my wife's extended family who has been scattered around the central and northern regions of the Incan empire forever. Which meant lots of parties, meals and Peruvian pisco. So I naturally developed a certain contempt for that favorite of all Chilean spirits that they call "Chilean pisco." Because as every self-respecting Peruvian believes, the real pisco — meaning the only one worth drinking and that never, ever leads to a pounding head in the morning — is Peruvian pisco. Then I came to Chile and decided to find out for myself. And to my surprise I found that my Peruvian cocktail consortium was wrong — on both counts! Here is what I learned. But first, just what is pisco anyway and why all the fuss?
Pisco: a primer
Pisco is a fermented grape spirit much like brandy — a fiery, distilled elixir with a powerful sting (ranging from ~60-90 proof). Pisco production in Chile is highly regulated, and distilleries are required to use only five varieties of grapes from just two regions. Pisco starts its journey to the bottle as a fully fermented wine, aged in oak barrels to reach maximum alcohol development. That wine can be distilled as many times as the pisco maker wants, rendering an increasingly “purer” pisco, to which he adds water, additives and flavorings to achieve the desired taste. Chileans say this enables them to adjust the flavor to make the best pisco.
In Peru a distiller can distill into pisco any of eight approved varieties of wine from five official regions. It must then age in steel or copper tanks — never wood — for no less than three months. What is distilled that first time is what you get; nothing is added or diluted before going straight into the bottle. Peruvians say that this is the original and purest way to make the spirit, that it's the best pisco and that, indeed, it's really the only real pisco.
Who is right? Whose is best? Who knows....
But for decades each country has wanted the exclusive right to the name “pisco” and it remains hotly contested between them. But here’s the rub: much as they won’t admit it, Chileans secretly like Peru’s pisco. Indeed, Chile is the largest importer of Peruvian Pisco (even though Chile produces three times more pisco than its neighbor). Still, they won’t call it by it’s rightful name, instead labeling it as the (significantly less impressive) Aguardiente. On the other hand, one can’t even buy Chilean pisco in Peru — it’s illegal to import it. In fact, each country’s own version is such an important part of its national heritage that they celebrate to it in Peru on Pisco Day (fourth Sunday of July) and Pisco Sour Day (first Saturday of February), and in Chile on Piscola Day (February 8).
Pisco: a tasting
My own moment of Chilean pisco discovery took place in the basement of a friend's house which had been converted into a wine cellar, replete with iron gates to keep the wine in, and the teenage kids out. We gathered around a few small tables in order for Chef & Sommelier Ximena Gutiérrez of Sybarité in Santiago to teach us all we needed to know about pisco. She encourages people to drink pisco neat in order to truly understand it, and she brought a selection of piscos from both Peru and Chile. The tasting commenced with Ximena pouring 2 small sippers of crystal clear pisco for each of us. One was from Peru; the other from Chile. But no one knew which was which. The truth is that both of the piscos were excellent. But there were differences; Sample One presented a complex melange of flavors — a fruity, brandy attack with a smooth, mildly grappa-like finish and clean, crisp presentation. With each small sip it coated the tongue like a fine wine and dribbled down the palate with the greatest of ease and enjoyment — and then lasted on my palate like a party happening in my mouth. Sample Two also delivered a pleasant flavor — slightly more like fine tequila, it had a dry, evaporating-on-the-tongue approach and a cheek-kiss of smoke. Less grapiness but colorful essences of perfume — like delicate flowers in a sun-soaked meadow. The smooth finish was shorter than the first sample, the breezy flavors disappearing quickly, rendering me at once excited to take another sip. Nothing wrong with that….
So, which one was which? At risk of raising dissension, I will reveal that Sample One was Peruvian pisco; Sample Two was Chilean. Which tasted better? Sorry, I have friends and family in both countries. So I'll never say....
Ximena didn’t stop there, because most people do more with pisco than just sip it straight. As quickly as our little sippers disappeared came that ubiquitous of all pisco drinks in both Chile and Peru: the Pisco Sour. There has been many a bar fight, family feud and relentless national debate over which country’s pisco sour is better. Which seems a bit silly becasue the reality is, aside from containing pisco and some sourness, these cocktails are not really even the same.
In Peru this national libation is made with juice from a specific lime called the Limón Tahiti, a thin-skinned bittersweet fruit that is unique in flavor and prized in this drink. It is added to the smooth brandy-like pisco along with a splash of simple syrup and the defining difference between its neighbor's version: whipped egg whites. A dash of blazing Angostura bitters on the puffy foam and the cocktail is complete. It comes on as a cool, smooth wonder of the booze world — concurrently sweet and sour, slightly thick and utterly delicious.
Chile’s version is quite different. The Chilean pisco imparts a more floral note which, when combined with juice of the prized Pica Lime from the north and a little castor sugar stirred in, results in a tart-yet-sweet cocktail with a slight bite and a dulcent finish. An entirely different taste and mouth feel than the Peruvian version, Chile’s Pisco sour presents more as a whisky sour, but with the succulent flavor of pisco rather than the bite and burn of whiskey. It's a cool, crisp and dangerously contagious drink.
There are other pisco-based libations that are popular — especially with the younger folk with less pisco expertise, and Ximena was sure to introduce us. One was a Chilcano, a fizzy cousin to Chile’s pisco sour, served on the rocks with bitters, lemon juice and ginger ale. There are variations on the theme, such as the Tangerine Chilcano: tangerine juice with, or even in place of, the lemon juice. Other juices can be used instead. Neither chilcano is an unpleasant refreshment; especially if sitting by a pool in the bright Andean sun — but neither are the calibre and quality of the national favorite.
If you have a craving to experience the party scene of generations of young Chileans, then there is the Piscola — and Ximena insisted we try it. Like the horrendous mixtures of booze and whatever-else-to-mix-it-with from those surreptitious drinking days of underaged teens, the Piscola is simply a dubious blend of (a heavy pour of) pisco with — dare I say it — Coca Cola. Such concoction spawns the hybrid name of this alcohol delivery system, which is often not even served on the rocks and usually in a plastic Solo cup. (Note: buy the cheap pisco brands for this one) Yet while teens and youth-clinging twenty-somethings seem to love it, my advice to anyone whose pisco whistle I may be wetting is simple: avoid the Piscola at all costs.
By the end of the evening I had reached two conclusions: just as it's nearly impossible to decide what kind of wine is “better,” it is equally difficult to pin Peru’s pisco against Chile’s. Each can be excellent in their own unique way, and enjoyed depending on one’s preference. In other words, there was no clear winner — except we the tasters of it all. And so continues the pisco war between Chile and Peru, where nobody really loses and the warriors go home happy.
And the other universal conclusion? Never waste any kind of pisco — Chilean or Peruvian — on a Piscola!