Pisco is at its simplest, is Brandy from Latin America. Pisco is Aguardiente, the word comes from the Latin “Agua” for “water” and “Ardiente” meaning “fiery” - Fire Water. Simliar to Brandy, which is short for Brandywine, from the Dutch expression for “burnt wine” or distilled wine.
Most nations in Latin America claim proprietorship of Pisco and that has lead too many arguments, from the halls of academia to the tables of tabernia. Peru claims the beverage got it’s name from the Peruvian town of Pisco. Chilean linguist Rodolfo Lenz said that the word pisco was used all along the Pacific coast of the Americas from Arauco to Guatemala, and that the word would be of Quechua origin meaning "bird”. Most convincing (to me) is Chilean linguist Mario Ferreccio Podesta’s theory, that the etymology to which pisco was originally a word for a mud container, much like amphora.
The Spaniards introduced distillation almost as soon as they arrived. In the Viceroyalty of New Spain vineyards were introduced by missionaries wherever they could get Vitis Vinerfera to grow. and the late 1500’s there were vineyards producing wine commercially from modern day growing regions like Chile in the south to California in the North . So significant and threatening to the Spanish mercantilist that in 1595 the Spanish Crown banned the establishment of new vineyards in the Americas to protect the exports of its native wine industry.
By the 17th century Pisco was being exported including back to Spain and Portugal for fortification of wines. By the 18th century Pisco represented almost 90% of the grape beverage produced. During the California Gold Rush Pisco became a hit in San Francisco.
Pisco is made in an alembic Pot Still, just like Spanish Brandy or Cognac. It is distilled to between 60 and 80 proof with some Gran Pisco coming in at 86 proof or more. There are eight approved grape varietals, Muscat is by far the most popular grape because of its aromatics followed by Torontel and Pedro Ximenex. Pisco must be aged for a minimum of three months in vessels of "glass, stainless steel or any other material which does not alter its physical, chemical or organic properties".
Peruvian Pisco must be made in the country's five official D.O. (Denomination of Origin) departments—Lima, Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna (only in the valleys of Locumba Locumba, Sama and Caplina). Chilean Pisco must be made in the country’s two official D.O. (Denomination of Origin) regions—Atacama and Coquimbo. The right to use an appellation of origin for pisco is hotly contested between Peru and Chile. Peru claims the exclusive right to use the term "pisco" only for products from Peru. Chile, regards the term "pisco" as generic, and it argues the spirit is simply a type of alcoholic beverage made from grapes.
The Bank Exchange and Duncan Nicol, circa 1893.
Pisco Punch was made famous by Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange Saloon in San Francisco. Nicol was the last owner of the Bank Exchange when it closed its doors permanently in 1919 because of the Volstead Act.
Duncan Nicol invented a pisco punch recipe using: pisco brandy, pineapple, lime juice, sugar, gum arabic and distilled water.
Simple Pisco Punch
2 ounces pisco
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
2 ounce pineapple Juice
1 ounce simple syrup
Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker with ice. Shake for 15 seconds. Double strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange twist.
One bank Exchange regular said, "It tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer." Others said "it makes a gnat fight an elephant." Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine wrote in 1937: "In the old days in San Francisco there was a famous drink called Pisco Punch, made from Pisco, a Peruvian brandy... pisco punch used to taste like lemonade but had a kick like vodka, or worse."
Pisco found many fans during its heyday. In Rudyard Kipling's 1889 epic From Sea to Sea, he immortalized Pisco Punch as being "compounded of the shavings of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters."
Pisco has found fans in a new generation of Mixologist and imbibers. The clean nature of the bandy makes a nice base for cocktails. Here is a modern update on Punch from me.
Lenny’s Pisco Parlor Punch
3 ounce Barsol Pisco
1 ounce Lime Juice
½ ounce Lemon Juice
1 ounce Small Hands Pineapple Gum Syrup
½ ounce Velvet Falernum
Shake with ice and double strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a cherry or pineapple or both.
Velvet Falernumis a longtime staple item of resorts and bars in Barbados, and today for its use in Tropical, Tiki and Caribbean drinks such as the Rum Swizzle, Mai Tai and Zombie. Made from an infusion of spices and lime juice into sugar cane syrup and Barbados Rum.
Small Hands Gum Syrup is about as close as you can get to Duncan's original.
Bodega San Isidro dates back to the 1800’s. However, the most remote documents retrieved from the local town archives date back to 1919. In 2005 Bodega San Isidro became the top exporter of Pisco of Peru, being the first company ever to export one solid 20’ container of Pisco in Peru’s history. BarSol specializes in piscos produced with Quebranta, Italia and Torontel Grapes. They are produced in both styles, a) straight pisco and b) Mosto Verde Pisco. An “Acholado” pisco is also made, from a blend of piscos from the 3 single grape varietals.