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Sour notes: getting to know Pisco, the South American brandy

Pisco, the South American brandy, is best known as a cocktail ingredient, but it’s great on the rocks too.

Published 28 Jun 2019, 18:00 BST
Drinkers in Lima's historic centre
Drinkers in Lima's historic centre.
Photograph by Getty

What is it?

A South American grape brandy that Peru and Chile each claim sole ownership of as their national drink. The bitter dispute, dubbed the ‘Pisco Wars’, dates back to the late 19th century, during which time the rival neighbours have each developed their own take on the spirit. Chilean pisco is aged in wooden barrels, with water sometimes added to lower the alcohol content, while Peruvian pisco is never diluted, and aged in steel or glass containers for up to three months.

Got it. So what does it taste like?

Well, it was first created by colonialists who wanted to replicate traditional brandy, so it does have
some similarities to its European counterpart. But, with totally different terroir and grapes, pisco has evolved into a very different spirit — lighter and with a more subtle flavour. A good pisco should have floral notes with lots of perfume and a lingering aftertaste.

And what do I do with it?

You can sip it neat, but ice makes it much more approachable. Premium piscos such as Mosto Verde (distilled from partially fermented grape must) and Puro (made from a single grape variety) are recommended for sipping, while Acholados (blends) are better suited to cocktails, like the pisco sour — the perfect entry point. Sour with lime but also sweet, it manages to be delicious without obscuring the flavour of the spirit.

Where can I get it?

All good cocktail bars will be able to make a pisco sour, but your best bet is a proper South American joint like The Lost Alpaca, in London’s Covent Garden. Head bartender Victor Tutuianu has noticed an uptick in interest in the spirit. “It used to be just a curiosity, but we’re moving a lot more pisco at the moment,” he says. You can also pick up bottles of the stuff at specialist stores like The Whisky Exchange, or via online outlets such as Marussia Beverages.

The cocktail: Pisco sour


60ml Mosto Verde Pisco
22.5ml lime juice 
15ml simple syrup
15ml egg white
1 dash orange flower water (optional)
3 drops Angostura bitters


1 Shake everything except the bitters with ice and fine strain into a chilled glass.
2 Float 3 drops of Angostura bitters on top.

The Lost Alpaca.
Photograph by The Lost Alpaca

Where to try

The Lost Alpaca, London 
Come for the perfect pisco sour, stay for the Cuento del Diablo — an enthralling pisco, chilli syrup, strawberry and lime cocktail. 

Tariff & Dale, Manchester 
A heavy-hitter on Manchester’s cocktail scene, Tariff & Dale does a killer sour with ginger-infused pisco and Peychaud’s bitters. 

Ceviche, London
The two restaurants serve piscos plus ‘imposter’ cocktails, which switch the usual spirit in classics like Old Fashioned and martini for pisco. 

Published in issue 4 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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