With its distinctive flavour, rich history and disputed origins, pisco is a spirit that has fanned Latin passions for centuries. The true source of this viscous liqueur, which is the official drink of both Chile and Peru, remains hotly contested by the South American neighbours. But regardless of its origins, pisco is a celebrated symbol of the region, from Cusco to Santiago — it's an increasingly popular tipple in cocktail bars around the globe.
Chilean Nobel Prize Laureate Pablo Neruda is said to have described it as “un millón de años de sol en una sola gota” — a million years of sunshine in just one drop.
Colourless or pale amber in hue (depending on whether it’s aged in glass or oak containers), pisco is distilled from grapes rather than grain, creating a strong, sweet and slightly herbaceous taste. Underneath the gentle strands of flavour, this aguardiente (brandy) is deceptively strong — a point all too quickly discovered by unwary first-time drinkers.
The beverage rose to prominence after Spanish settlers established vineyards across the region in the 16th century. These proved so fruitful that they threatened the success of Spain’s own vineyards, so the monarchy put regulations in place to restrict production of wine in the Americas.
This decision was a driving force behind increased pisco production over the next century. Today, the difference between the Peruvian and Chilean versions is subtle yet significant.
In Peru, there are four different categories of the spirit, depending on the variety of grapes used, but it is always produced using copper pot stills, and never diluted after distillation. The liquid is then aged for at least three months in caskets made of glass or sometimes metal, so as not to affect the taste or aroma of the brandy. No additives of any kind are added.
Meanwhile its Chilean counterpart, produced in the Coquimbo and Atacama regions, adheres to different regulations and falls into one of five different categories, depending on its age and strength. These brews range from almost clear right through to dark amber, depending on how long the liquor is left to age in wooden caskets.
The purists drink pisco on its own, without even the addition of ice; revelling in the aguardiente’s fragrant, fiery flavour. However, the Pisco Sour has become popular in both countries, and indeed around the globe. This cocktail is traditionally prepared with pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup and sometimes egg white and bitters.Whether you are sampling pisco in Peru or Chile, there are numerous different and delicious ways to enjoy it.
1. Celebrate the pisco festival in Lima
In Peru, the fourth Sunday of every July is Día del Pisco (Pisco Day). The capital, Lima — one of the country’s key pisco-producing regions — is a fantastic place to immerse yourself in the celebrations, which include concerts, tours of local production sites, various food stalls and exhibitions on the history of pisco. To mark the occasion in the city’s central Plaza Mayor, the fountain waters are replaced with pisco — some 2000 litres of the liquor spouting out for passers by to catch in cups throughout the day. It is a day of heavy celebrating, so there’ll be no better place to rest your head than at a sanctuary by the sea. The elegant Belmond Miraflores Park hotel should fit the bill, set in one of Lima’s most fashionable areas and surrounded by lush, peaceful gardens. For views over the celebrating city and the ocean, check into a Presidential Pool Suite on the top floor, where you can enjoy a session in your private sauna before relaxing on the terrace by the plunge pool: the perfect place to enjoy a pisco cocktail, as the sun sets over the sparkling South Pacific.
Price: Presidential Pool Suite from US $2,000 per night
Tel: +51 1 610 4000
2. Create cocktails in Cusco
Cusco is a place steeped in ancient Incan history, but those looking to study the story of Peru’s foremost spirit should make a beeline for the Museo del Pisco in Centro Histórico. As well as offering some fascinating insight into the celebrated drink and its standing in Peru today, there is a range of masterclasses on offer. These include a pisco tasting session, a pisco-chocolate pairing experience and a full-on cocktail class. This popular authentic experience is also available in Arequipa, and has sparked the construction of another Museo del Pisco location in Lima, expected to open in April 2015. After mastering some mixology, check in at the Inkaterra La Casona, a Relais & Châteaux property. This exquisitely restored 16th-century mansion is secreted away down cobbled streets between the artistic San Blas district and Cusco’s vibrant main square. Choose from Patio, Balcon or Plaza suites, all situated around a stunning central courtyard and offering elegant colonial style with traditional accents and jewel-toned upholstery. A stay here is akin to a stay in a private residence.
Price: Plaza Suites from $649 per night
Tel: +51 1 610 0400
3. Explore good taste in stylish Santiago
Chile’s capital, Santiago, is a study in cool, with trendy restaurants, fashion-filled boutiques and carefully curated museums all vying for attention. Get into the pisco spirit by touring the home of one of its most famous fans: the Nobel Prize-winning poet and statesman, Pablo Neruda. La Chascona (which translates to ‘the tree house’) is a multi-storey home in the colouful bohemian neighbourhood of Bellavista, and is filled with books, art and antiques from the period offering an insight into this bon vivant’s life in the 1950s. Stay at The Ritz-Carlton Santiago, a stunning property located in the prestigious Las Condes area, where the Presidential Suite offers 14th-floor views over the city. It’s ideal for entertaining, with a dining room that seats 10, plus a
separate kitchen, so your dedicated chef can whip up his creations undisturbed. Wind down in the early evening with a post-dinner pisco in front of the open fire in the sumptuous lounge, before freshening up in the lush marble bathrooms to head out and explore Santiago’s colourful nightlife.
Price: Presidential Suite from $5,000 per night
Tel: +56 2 2470 8500
4. Tour pisco producers in the Elqui Valley
The tranquil and beautiful Elqui Valley, running parallel to the Andes, is where the majority of Chile’s major pisco producers are located. The area is renowned for its natural beauty, with blue skies and verdant vineyards sheltered by soaring mountains, and a mild climate where grapes thrive. The village of Peralillo, on the banks of the Elqui River, is home to the Cooperativa Agrícola Pisquera Elqui (CAPEL), where you can take a tour of the plant. Further down the valley in Montegrande, you’ll find the Artesanos del Cochiguaz mill: an artisan factory where 10 workers produce more than one million litres of the sought-after spirit. Complete your rural experience with a night at eco-camp Elqui Domos, where guests can stargaze through high-powered telescopes in the property’s own observatory. But your astronomy experience doesn’t end there: retire to your lunar-like Dome tent, and open the viewing flap over the double bed to fall asleep gazing at the night sky.
Price: Dome rooms from $155 per night