When I was in high school I went abroad as a foreign exchange student in the Atacama region of Chile, an arid region in the North of the long, sliver of a country cradled by the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. Despite that the drinking age there is technically eighteen, my unusually tall stature and age-obscuring gringo looks meant that it was also my first foray into drinking; wine, spirits, and inevitably, the national favorite, pisco, an unusual brandy made from distilling fermented grape juice. I especially don’t remember those first occasions of sipping Piscola, the casual Pisco and Coca-cola mix favored just about everywhere, but I do remember regaling my American friends with tales of the beverage’s potency and being met with furrowed brows.
You can blame it on our age at the time—at sixteen, my drink vocabulary was limited to Beer (capital “B,” indiscriminate) and Mike’s Hard Lemonade— but surely no one in the cocktail community would furrow their brows at pisco these days. The beverage once considered an alcoholic afterthought on par with Italian Grappa has slowly been gaining traction in the U.S. market. The growth is in part due to efforts of major producers and importers, but is also a natural extension of cocktail culture’s never ending quest for the new and novel. Companies like BarSol, Pisco Porton, Macchu Pisco and Kappa, from the makers of Grand Marnier, have already made impressive, high-quality versions of the beverage accessible throughout the states.
A clear to slightly yellowish colored liquor that usually falls to the higher end of the alcohol content spectrum, Pisco has its origin in either Chile or Peru, depending on whom you ask. Both countries regard imbibing Pisco a patriotic past-time, but while Chile out-produces Peru by considerable numbers, it’s Peru’s efforts to refine and export the beverage that have been contributing the most to the drink’s rise in popularity. Many Americans are first acquainted with Pisco through the Pisco Sour, a drink made with simple syrup, lime juice, egg whites and a sprinkle of bitters, but pisco is too versatile to be pigeon-holed to just one cocktail. I’m hoping that this South American staple eventually makes it behind U.S. bars as the new cocktail essential, if only for my own nostalgia’s sake.
Below is a roundup of four beverages from across the South that take pisco beyond the basic sour:
Sangria de Cava / Barsa, Charleston SC
Pisco, elderflower, fresh citrus, cava