By The Power Of Pisco II: What Is Pisco?

Welcome to the second part of our Pisco special, we’ll have a look at how Pisco is made and what’s so specific about true Peruvian Pisco. If Pisco could speak it would say: ‘My recipe holds no secret, yet I have no rival.’ It’s an actual line from a pisco commercial, but if you think about it, it’s true! Pisco and mezcal are by far the most spectacular clear distillates on this planet. Read on below, why.

It’s all in the grapes

In order for pisco to be pisco it must be made from ‘uvas pisqueras‘ or ‘pisco grapes’. There are 8 different grapes, 4 aromatic and 4 non-aromatic, that grow in 5 different valleys in Peru. These 5 main winemaking regions are all coastal areas in or near the southern half of Peru: Lima, Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna. Let’s take a look at the grapes.

Our charming guide at Queirolo teaching us how to identify the different grape varieties.


Non-aromatic grapes

  • Quebranta: the emblematic grape from the Ica Valley. Most piscos are made from quebranta grapes or a blend of quebranta with other grapes. A quebranta pisco is bold and powerful. The ones I tasted produced aromas of black fruit, cacao, dry fruit, nuts. Typically when you make a Pisco Sour, it will be a quebranta.
  • Negra Criolla: grows predominantly in Moquegua and Tacna. This grape is perfectly round and mid-sized and comes originally from the Canary Islands. Pisco made from these grapes sweet and dry at the same time, delivered with a touch of herbal spiciness and dry fruit. We believed that you could actually smell the grape must in it.
  • Mollar: apparently also known as Listan Negra, a well known grape variety on the Canary Islands. It is actually the black version of the Palomino, which they use in Sherry. Produces pisco with a bold personality.
  • Uvina: a very sweet, small, black grape which results in a sweeter pisco with touches of honey and white raisins, very fruity.


Aromatic grapes

  • Moscatel: an aromatic grape from mediterranean origin resulting in a very sophisticated and elegant pisco. Very flowery and lady-like.
  • Italia: is very popular in pisco. It’s abundant, soft, sweet and flowery. Very aromatic.
  • Torontel: Spanish grape from Andalusia and Galicia. Torontel pisco is silky soft, rounded and oily with hints of lavender and flowers.
  • Albilla: again Spanish grape. Honey and cinnamon, mixed with flowers and peaches. A very lush pisco.
Shhhh, here sleeps the pisco. 

Three different types of Pisco

Using these – and only these – eight grapes you can make three types of pisco.

Pisco Puro: which means nothing more than pisco made from one single grape variety (aromatic or non-aromatic)

Pisco Acholado: which is basically a blend of at least two (duh!) different grapes, almost in all cases a blend of an aromatic and a non-aromatic grape variety. We received an exquisite special edition “La Caravedo Acholado” made from quebranta and torontel grapes, a fantastic blend. The bold robustness of the quebranta beautifully married to the silky smooth, floral, oiliness of the torontel. Absolute bliss.

Mosto Verde: normally to make pisco the entire sugar content of the grapes is allowed to ferment into alcohol. With Mosto Verde they interrupt the fermentation process so there’s still a small amount of sugar left during distillation. This results in very smooth and rounded piscos that are a bit sweeter. Nice for after dinner.

Did we mention that tasting is very, very important. 🙂

Pisco a traditional pure spirit, un-aged, but well rested

Traditionally pisco is distilled in falca stills. Falca stills are encased in bricks just like cognac stills and there’s no ‘swan’s neck’, it’s just a copper pipe that comes out the side and runs through a pool of water to cool down. The top of the still has a plain copper lid and is at ground level, the bottom where the spirit comes out is one floor below. I’ve actually never seen this before.  At La Caravedo distillery – the oldest distillery in the Americas (1684) – you can see the 400 year old distillation process in detail, everything is still there and it actually runs on gravity to allow for a slow and smooth distillation process. The traditional ‘lagar’ where they crush the grapes is situated on the top floor together with the traditional wooden wine press. Then the ‘grape must’ flows one floor down so to speak into the maceration and fermentation area. Apart from the traditional falcas, pisco is also produced in state of the art, modern, copper pot stills or cognac alembics with wine pre-heaters.

And that’s it. It’s distilled to proof, no water is added. In fact nothing is allowed to be added to Peruvian pisco by law. No additives, no dilution. Also pisco is never aged on wooden barrels, for the very obvious reason that it doesn’t need it. They just let it rest in cement, metal or even glass containers for at least three months up to 4 years sometimes. It’s smooth, bold, complex, robust and elegant at the same time. It’s both floral, sweet and earthy and dry at the same time. A mountain of flavours.


Cheers! Next time we’ll talk about cocktails, both the eponymous Pisco Sour and the less known Chilcano, El Capitan and many others.


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