The South American spirit may have failed to make much international impact in its 450-year history, but a new generation of producers are determined to change all that, finds Hamish Smith

EXPLAINED SIMPLY, pisco is a grape spirit made in Peru and Chile. But then, things are rarely simple. The narrative of pisco can be as complex or as concise as the storyteller chooses, or the reader requires. That in mind, refer – or don’t – to the potted history of pisco at the end of this feature.

Certainly, there is an empty seat at the table of global spirits categories which pisco might have occupied were it not for the historical, cultural and geographical pressures that have divided it to its core.

Right now, the pisco category produces about five million nine-litre cases (collective industry estimates). In the context of its Latin American friends, rum, tequila and cachaça, pisco is smaller than minuscule. And because its sales are domestically-dominated – exports are the preserve of the few, not the many – little notice is taken when small gains are made or positive trends occur. But speak to the people of pisco and they will attest to a quiet revolution. In the past decade the seeds of premiumisation have been sewn in both Peru and Chile and export strategies are now commonplace. In the bars of cities that embrace cocktail culture, pisco has started to gain some traction.

Peruvian pisco

Peru’s production, which varies from the crude to the high-tech ends of artisanal production, is outnumbered in volume terms 7:1 by Chile. Regulations are tighter here than across the border and, as such, producers are required to use only eight varieties of grape, distillation must be to proof – so no water is added – and the spirit cannot be aged.

Author of The Pisco Book Gregory Dicum has chronicled the rise of Peruvian pisco. “Since the 90s the economy has been on track, there’s been peace and a growing middle class and the creation of an incredible food scene in Lima. These conditions have combined to revive pisco.”

This renaissance has seen the birth of a number of outwardly focused brands looking to quality, not quantity. According to Andina – a promotional agency in Peru – the Peruvian Exporters’ Association (ADEX) reported a 35% increase in sales value in the year ending October 2011.

The main destination of exports was the US (59%), followed by Chile, Spain, Colombia, Japan and Germany.

Dicum continues: “In the past 10 years pisco has transformed in Peru and it’s just starting to be exported outside of the country. It’s a challenge for exporters as they’re coming into markets where Peruvian pisco isn’t known and they’re having to say: “It has an incredible history – it’s actually 400 years old.” The export piscos are only a tiny sliver of the variety of piscos produced in Peru, but the good news is that it tends to some of the best ones.”

One such brand is Pisco Portón which, in its three short years, has become a front runner in the super-premium, export-focused camp. The brand has been financed to the tune of $35m by American William Kallop and his son Brent and, under the stewardship of Peruvian master distiller and pisco bon vivant Johnny Schuler, the brand has grown rapidly.

Schuler says the brand, classified as an anchelado – a blend of grapes – will achieve 100,000 cases in 2012. And the long-term target? “Our ambition is to produce 10 million litres,” says Schuler, who also hosts a primetime pisco-themed TV show in Peru. The brand is currently in high-end restaurants and bars in Peru, 28 states in the US and will export to Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, the UK and Spain this year.

“The category doesn’t exist yet [in export markets] – we will be creating the category. We will be pulling a train-load of brands that will hitch on to us. It cannot be a one-brand category – in the US there are already 18-20 piscos – but we will be the leaders.”

Schuler sees cocktails as key. “It’s the cocktail culture that’s pulling us. And to make the best cocktail you need the best spirit. We are interested in London, Barcelona, Madrid –­ hip cities that have a huge and beautiful cocktail culture. Of course, grape makes a wonderful spirit for a cocktail. We’re not a vegetable, we’re not a cactus, we’re not a grain, we’re a fruit. Mixologists are having a wonderful time with pisco.”

Steve Raye, managing partner at the US-based, self-explanatorily-named agency, Brand Action Team, has his own advice for pisco producers: “Our recommendation is that pisco focuses on competing in the ‘white mixable spirit’ category that transcends vodka, tequila and rum. Ultimately its emergence has to be driven by consumer interest. In order to get there, however, suppliers have to build awareness of the category and generate the interest and advocacy of mixologists, bartenders and food and beverage directors, retailers and distributors.”

Cocktail hour

The Pisco Sour remains the most common vehicle for pisco – both in Chile and Peru and abroad. But, just as the Mojito and the Caipirinha carry their respective spirits – rum and cachaça – round the globe, the Sour isn’t universally accepted as the right ride for pisco.”

“The Pisco Sour is another part of the problem,” says The Pisco Book’s Dicum. “As the quality of pisco plummeted [in the 20th century] it was the perfect drink for masking poor quality pisco. You can pack in sugar, lime and egg then it doesn’t matter what pisco you use.” Added to this is the cocktail’s inaccessibility to mainstream bars or armatures (??).

“Most peoples’ experience of pisco is through these cocktails that are quite difficult to make at home,” says Dicum. “You have to add egg whites and people are afraid of that.”

BarSol is Peru’s second biggest export brand and one of the first of the modern era to look beyond home borders since forming in 2001. The brand, which claims to sell around 10,000 cases and expects to double volume within three years, currently exports to 18 European countries, the US, South East Asia, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico.

For Diego Loret de Mola, the brand’s founder, the on-trade and restaurants, in particular, represent an opportunity. “The recognition of Peru as a culinary centre of South America has helped,” he says.

“Yet there is a long journey ahead. At the moment the missing link for pisco to become a mainstream spirit is to be able to have a natural connection between the consumer, the cocktail/spirit and the experience. 

“With tequila, [the US] consumer has access to Mexican food, Mexican beaches, Mexican culture and can connect to a Mexican theme in one way or another. At the moment pisco has achieved recognition as something special, hard to get, and connects with people that have had some sort of Peruvian experience.”

Chilean pisco

Head out of Peru’s southern border and the pisco might assume a yellow tinge from barrel ageing and will have certainly undergone at least two distillations. The powerhouses of CCU (Compañia Cervecerias Unidas) – a large brewery and beverage company – and Capel represent about 90% of the production in Chile. 

Capel claims to be the largest pisco producer in the world and through its brands – such as Alto del Carmen, Capel, Cochiguaz Artisan, Monte Fraile and Limari – it offers a plethora of styles and RTD products. According to Capel’s export director Javier Marcos, the domestic market is showing growth, along with the US and Brazil. 

“There is a large market for mass products, however in exports, the premium products market is growing strongly for Capel,” he says. In response to this trend a band of small-scale producers have arrived on the scene.

“The market now shows a clear trend moving from basic pisco to premium,” says Alejandro Aguirre, owner of Pisco Aba – a brand which claims to have seen sales grow by 15% in the past year. “Ten years ago Aba was the first premium pisco launched in Chile. It’s made from the best selection of Muscat grapes from The Elqui Valley, meaning it’s rich in terroir.” 

In Chile, Piscolas (pisco and cola) are a popular serve for its national spirit, especially at barbeques and parties, according to Aguirre. But the undisputed king, much like in Peru, is still the Pisco Sour. “Several years ago consumers did not pay much attention to which pisco was used in a Pisco Sour. Now some restaurants are starting to feature a selection of pisco styles on their menus with different prices,” says Aguirre.

Another that sources grapes from the Elqui Valley is Kappa. The super-premium pisco is made from 100% Muscat grapes and even went to the lengths of shipping an alembic still from Cognac. 

According to the brand’s owner, Charles de Bournet Marnier Lapostolle, the premiumising trend and newfound attention to exports has seen the creation of Pisco Spirits, an organisation which will promote Chilean pisco in the US. 

Aba’s Aguirre explains: “This will be one of the first chances for all Chilean pisco producers to work together to start shaping the sector. From here, there will hopefully be new markets to explore. Pisco has history. It has been developed by generations of families in northern Chile. It is part of the culture, and identity of Chileans, and is therefore a very exportable product.” 

Generic body

Peru lacks the galvanizing effect of a single-purpose international body. Currently it relies on government organisations which promote Peru’s collective cultural attractions. Perhaps a trans-nation generic body for pisco is the answer. 

Lapostolle of Chile’s Kappa certainly agrees – to him pisco is no different from rum, which is also a product of more than one nation. “I think it is key that Chileans and Peruvians work together to build the category,” he says. 

Brand Action Team’s Raye outlines the international perception: “One of the big issues in the category is country of origin. Unfortunately that only serves to confuse consumers. While there are some fundamental production differences, at the end of the day, to consumers, pisco is pisco.”

If its history can be archived away and a commonality between Peru and Chile agreed, Pisco would surely be bigger and better as the sum of its parts. Interestingly, in the ancient Peruvian language of Quechua, pisco translates as ‘little bird’. Certainly, up against the pantheon of global spirits categories, the little bird of pisco will need both of its wings if it is to ever really take flight.