This Saturday, shake up a Peruvian cocktail in honor of National Pisco Sour Day (celebrated on the first Saturday of February). As appreciation for the Latin American spirit grows, quality-minded brands are hitting NYC shelves while bartenders embrace pisco’s spectrum of flavors for a range of uses.
Until recent years, Peruvian pisco in the States, if one could find it, was synonymous with a dusty, forlorn bottle of cheap hangover-helper, shoved to the back of a shelf. But quality pisco is delightfully rich, layered, and fragrant. In an effort to understand its origin, I traversed hemispheres to alight on an extraordinary landscape, where the Pacific Ocean kisses the desert at the threshold of the Andes.
It turns out, Peruvians grow their pisco grapes somewhere between the moon and the Sahara. Departing Lima for the Pisco Trail, located in a southern stretch of the country near Ica, my bus rumbled interminably down a section of the epic Pan-American Highway, passing tattered villages, crumbled black rock, and windswept sand dunes tumbling to the edge of the road. Grapes grow here?
Not indigenously. In the mid–sixteenth century, Spanish colonialists imported grain and grapes, along with Roman Catholicism, to emulate their homeland. The Jesuits needed wine for Sacrament, so they built bodegas (wineries) devoted to its production, and irrigated vineyards from ribbons of rivers flowing down from the Andes.
But inventions are often born of tax resistance, and distilling pisco avoided wine levies and a meddlesome Crown. Consequently, pisco surpassed wine production to become a mainstay of Peruvian culture.
Peruvian pisco comes from designated regions and is a white spirit distilled from naturally fermented grape juice. Modern producers still use copper alembiques (like in Cognac) — and even fewer the ancient falca — to distill to proof eight approved grapes classified as aromatic (e.g., Torontel and Italia) or non-aromatic (e.g., Quebranta). Nothing added, nothing taken away; rules forbid dilution with water and aging in barrels (unlike Peru’s archenemy, Chilean pisco, which allows both and uses different grapes and a column still). For three months, the spirit rests before bottling. These regulations ensure quality and a drink imbued with terroir.
For now, the Pisco Trail merely represents a newly affiliated group of longtime producers hoping to encourage curious, adventurous travelers to come taste. A visitors center does not exist, nor a map of participants — yet. This is Southern Peru, not Napa’s Silverado Trail. Ica is a raw, unpolished place, and the unembellished lives led here have one common pursuit: pisco.
I visited a range of producers, but Pisco Porton eclipsed all in global ambition. Based at La Caravedo, the oldest continuously operating bodega in the Americas, a new, cutting-edge distillery underscores Porton’s intentions. Sitting under a thatched-roof pavilion, the mind-bending milieu of vibrant green vineyards contrasting with the stark Atacama desert, we tasted that ambition with master distiller Johnny Schuler.
Eyeing the clear liquid suspiciously, I braced for the harsh sting of ethanol, but instead met intoxicating perfume: roses and crushed violet, hints of pear. This mosto verde (an expensive method of distilling pisco before the grape fermentation finishes, to create a rich liquid), distilled solely from Torontel, conjured memories of an exuberant Muscat; this was a spirit for wine drinkers, yet until recently, Americans lacked access.
Pisco first hit U.S. shores by way of San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Transported on boats by fortune hunters and traders, pisco became a bar staple, notably at the Bank Exchange, where Duncan Nicol’s celebrated Pisco Punch reputedly hooked its enthusiasts with a measure of (then legal) cocaine.
Forged in an era of excess, pisco’s fortunes would be diminished by the Great Depression and decades of political turbulence. As quality plummeted, the iconic Pisco Sour turned sweeter and tarter: a liquid barometer of the times. By early 2000, pisco enjoyed renewed domestic interest, but had convinced few overseas imbibers of its worth. Perhaps it lacked the perception of sophistication or had been marketed to the wrong audience.
The right audience — bartenders — proved pivotal in the spirit’s American resurgence. Foretelling pisco’s potential in the cocktail culture upswing, Diego Loret de Mola founded premium brand BarSol to specifically target mixologists. Not far behind, the owner of San Francisco’s Cantina Bar, Duggan McDonnell, developed Campo de Encanto to convert colleagues. New entrants like Macchu Pisco and Vinos de Oro now import single-varietal pisco (puros), premium mosto verde versions, and blends of grapes called acholados.
While home bartenders now have an unprecedented number (and growing) of piscos to play with, sometimes the best cocktail is the one the local pro pours for you.
Feliz Día Nacional del Pisco Sour!
Betony’s Pisco Sour
Created by Eamon Rockey, Betony, NYC
2 ounces Macchu Pisco
1 ounce gum arabic syrup (substitute simple syrup if not available)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 egg white
Amargo Chuncho Bitters (substitute Angostura if not available)
Build Instructions: Combine all but bitters in cocktail shaker and add two small pieces of ice. Seal the shaker and agitate aggressively for approximately 10 seconds to whip the egg white. Open the shaker, fill with ice, seal and shake again for another 5 seconds to chill. Strain the cocktail into a chilled glass and finish it with a dash of bitters.
Lauren Mowery is a drinks and travel writer based in NYC.