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For decades the world market for pisco has been controlled by a handful of plus-size distillers in Valle de Elquí in the Chilean desert southeast of La Serena. Each is larger than the next. They're sophisticated, have optimal efficiency and they produce not only pisco but also pre-mixed Pisco Sour and Cola de Mono cocktails that are sold alongside beer and Coca-Cola in Chilean supermarkets.
Their production of almost 50 million liters a year dwarfs that of rival Peru, where pisco was invented, which produces a mere 5 million liters. Yet today it is the grapier, more artisanal Peruvian pisco, made by more than 300 rustic mom-and-pop distillers scattered across the southern coast of the country, that has carved out a name for itself among mixologists and, since 2008, has actually surpassed Chile in sales in the U.S.
Most Americans who have tried pisco have done so only when it has provided the punch to a Pisco Sour cocktail, which combines pisco with lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup and bitters. But pisco purists are hoping that these finer liquors can compete with the recent influx of premium sipping tequilas and mezcals that have hit the U.S. market.
A good time to try
Peruvian pisco is distilled in copper alembic stills similar to the ones used to make Cognac. Strict rules ensure that no additives are used to alter any of the physical, chemical or organic properties of the spirit.
"The Peruvian government requires that pisco not have water added and that for the finished product to gain the title of pisco, it must be a completely clear liquid -- no aging in oak to hide poor quality," says Elizabeth da Trindade-Asher, one of two Harvard-educated Peruvian sisters who oversee Macchu Pisco, one of the country's finer brands. "Peruvian pisco aims to be representative of the grapes used and their terroir without any meddling or trickery through oak aging."
"Everyone is making really good piscos right now," said Edwin Landeo Del Pino, an enologist in Ica. "Five or six years ago, that wasn't the case."
In Lima's top bars and restaurants, premium piscos are sipped straight in snifter glasses, as well as being featured in a dozen or so cocktails -- including variations of the Pisco Sour that use passion fruit or the Amazonian camucamu juice instead of lime.
"Right now we are still undergoing an educational effort to teach the market at large what pisco is in general," says Da Trindade-Asher. "It's similar to tequila, really. Whoever would have thought that today you would have 100 different sipping tequilas in the market, when at one point the only thing you heard people say is what a horrible hangover you got from it."
Pisco is certainly gaining in popularity in the United States, and it's about time. The spirit's ties to this country date back more than 150 years. During the 1849 California Gold Rush, ships rounding Cape Horn picked up supplies from the Peruvian port of Pisco, including the local aguardiente, or liquor. It became the spirit of choice in San Francisco, where the legendary Bank Exchange & Billiard Room served Pisco Punch, a potent mix of pisco, gum arabic, and lemon and pineapple juices.
But Peruvian pisco never regained its popularity in this country after Prohibition in 1919. And in the latter half of the 20th century, as political instability and bureaucracy hampered Peruvian exports, Chile added Pisco to its growing list of products and soon dominated worldwide sales.
But Peru is fighting back. Since 2003, the Peruvian government has put in place strict legal regulations for distillers to maintain high-quality pisco, and sales have steadily risen. In 2008, Peruvian pisco sales jumped 48% in the U.S. from the previous year and production has since more than tripled, according to the Comisión Nacional del Pisco (ConaPisco).
Headed to the USA
Walk into any Wong supermarket in Lima and there are no fewer than 50 varieties of pisco, including a dozen premium labels locked in glass cases. In the U.S., only a few brands, such as the Chilean Capel and Alto del Carmen and Peruvian Macchu Pisco, BarSol, Montesierpe are available, and only in select states. La Diablada, Macchu Pisco's second label, a blend of Quebranta, Italia and Moscatel grapes, is the first premium sipping pisco to make its way into the fold in the U.S., but more is expected to enter the market in 2010.
The spirit's resurgence is partly due to the experimentation from a handful of top mixologists.
"It's got fire, with lots and lots of body," says Jackson Cannon, bar manager at Boston's Eastern Standard. "I'm getting ready to put a version of the El Capitan, basically a Manhattan with pisco, on our cocktail menu. I love using it like that. Like cachaça, most mixing with pisco is with sweet and sour balancing."
Apart from the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch, several other pisco-based cocktails have been added to the menu at Yerba Buena in Manhattan, such as the Peruvian Kiss, made with chicha morada, a purple corn drink, and the Maté Sour, which steeps pisco with yerba maté and then combines it with lime and grapefruit syrup in a traditional maté gourd, served with a silver straw, or bombilla. "We're serving 60 to 70 pisco drinks on weeknights and even more on the weekends," says Yerba Buena mixologist Artemio Vasquez.
Despite the current craze, pisco is still in its infancy when compared with other artisanal spirits. For example, more than 10 times more Brazilian cachaça is sold in the U.S.
"I think it will take many Peruvians championing the cause of pisco in this country and asking for pisco as an after-dinner drink, just like Italians do with grappa or the Japanese do with shochu, to gain traction here," says Da Trindade-Asher.
If the rising number of Peruvian restaurants in the country is any sign, that day might be sooner than we think.