I have always had a soft spot for pisco and its trendier Italian cousin grappa. Both are rustic, unaged grape brandies. Pisco originated as a way for Peruvian grape growers to use poorer quality grapes considered unsuitable for wine production which otherwise would have been discarded. From these humble beginnings pisco gradually grew in popularity and grapes started to be planted specifically for its production. In contrast, Italian grappa is distilled from the skins, stalks, pips and other material remaining after wine making. In most countries this material would be discarded or used as animal feed, but in Italy it is collected and distilled to produce grappa.
Whether pisco is distilled from fermented grape juice only or from a mash containing stalks, skins and other material as well as the juice is something I cannot seem to find a clear answer on. It seems pisco certainly began life as a very rustic product not unlike grappa, but has since been refined into something closer to a conventional brandy minus the barrel aging. I need to look into this some more. Maybe in future I can post something about specific differences in raw materials, fermentation and distillation that differentiate the two products. In any case, both pisco and grappa are nice to drink by themselves, and their aromatic, slightly rough-around-the-edges nature makes them excellent mixing spirits.
Despite having fallen on hard times during the 20th century pisco has an impressive cocktail pedigree. San Francisco is the city most associated with pisco cocktails. Before the construction of the railroads and the Panama Canal, one of the only reliable ways to transport goods and people between San Francisco and the eastern seaboard of the United States was via Cape Horn. Ships bound for San Francisco would obviously call in at South American ports en route to pick up and drop off cargo, and a lucrative trade developed selling Peruvian Pisco to thirsty San Franciscans. Much of this pisco was mixed into the city’s signature cocktail of the time, the Pisco Punch – of which more another time. . .
A few months ago I got a bottle of Machu Pisco, a Peruvian pisco just released in New Zealand. Last week while browsing in a bottle store I found two more piscos, this time from Chile – Capel and Bauza. With three piscos in the house it seemed like a good opportunity to do a pisco comparison.
To compare them I poured a shot of each into three wine glasses. It would probably make sense to mix them into a cocktail, but three cocktails seemed a bit of a mission so this comparison is just of the straight spirit.
Machu Pisco: I wasn’t expecting to particularly like this one now I had two others to compare it with. The name is cheesy and so obviously designed for export to the US. It is not hard to believe there must be a lot of better piscos in the world. In the glass this one is clear. Easily the most aromatic of the three, there were some interesting musty and yeasty aromas. In terms of taste it was sour, not especially intense, and somewhat complex without being overly so. The finish was not very long. It was not as complex as even some run-of-the mill grappas. Nor was it especially well balanced or integrated. It certainly tasted like pisco though. Overall it was decent without being remarkable.
Capel: Both this and the Bauza had a hint of color, either from minimal aging in wood, or the addition of caramel. The nose was much softer than the Machu Pisco, and generally fruity rather than yeasty. Something like dried fruit – specifically rasins? The taste was sweet, fruity, but a little flat and dull. This was far more restrained than the Machu Pisco. Maybe it was better integrated but really there was not a lot going on. It was probably too smooth for its own good.
Bauza: I liked the bottle design on this one. Like the Capel it was straw colored. The nose was thinner than the Capel and a little astringent, with almost a ‘gunpowder’ type of smell – the type of smell you get after setting off fireworks. You are probably thinking ‘sulfurous’ at this point but that wasn’t quite it. Should this smell be in your booze? You have to wonder. In the mouth it was sweet like the Capel, but less fruity, more astringent, and a little floral. Quite nice but again nothing spectacular.
So the conclusion. .
Despite being outnumbered, and in a surprise reversal of the War of the Pacific (in which the Chileans defeated Peru and Bolivia in 1883 and stole much of Peru’s pisco producing region), the Peruvians probably win. However, the victory was by not at all conclusive, and I think everyone is left wondering why they didn’t send their best man. When I was in Shanghai I used to use a cheap Italian grappa whose name I forget as a Pisco substitute and it was more interesting than any of these. That is not to say that these piscos are bad, just that it feels like they could pack a little more punch.