ontap c pisco

Photo courtesy of Pisco Porton


The Language of Pisco

A crash course in South America’s prized grape spirit.


Two countries in South America is where we set the scene. Both proudly lay claim to pisco as a homegrown spirit, and the 400-year-old debate remains heated to this day. Pisco polemicists may take sides—even insist that you do, too. To a curious imbiber, the stylistic differences between Chilean and Peruvian pisco is simply a glorious excuse to taste, mix and stock both. The only true hurdle is navigating the lexicon, which is still new to many U.S. drinkers, so think of this as your official pisco decoder ring. And for a more indepth look at the spirit, check out Paul Clarke’s feature in the Sept/Oct 2013 issue.


Chile v. Peru


As Paul Clarke explains in his exploration of pisco in the Sept/Oct 2013 issue, Peruvian pisco regulations allow for the spirit to be distilled from any one of (or a blend of) eight local grape varieties. Each imparts a slightly different characteristic to the finished spirit, but all are distilled using the same methods: stainless steel and glass are the only containers that Peruvian piscos ever come into contact with; they may be distilled only once, and never diluted. No wood-aging or any sort of manipulation other than the blending of varietals is allowed.


Chilean pisco regulations allow distillers to have a bit more influence on their final product. Distillers may run the spirit through multiple distillations, they may dilute the final product and they can even barrel-age. However, as opposed to the eight grape varieties used regularly in Peru, Chilean pisco makers tend to focus on only three, Moscatel being the most common.  




Puro Pisco: Single-varietal pisco.
Acholado: A blend of two or more grape varietals, often made primarily with the Quebranta grape.
Mosto Verde: A twist on pisco, mosto verde is distilled from partially fermented, fresh-pressed grape juice. The fermentation is stopped before all of the sugars have transformed into alcohol, resulting in a delicately sweet sipper.


5 Pisco Grape Varietals to Know


Moscatel: Also known as Muscat of Alexandria, this aromatic offspring of the well-known Muscat grape family lends a gentle honeyed note to the piscos made with it. Sippers can even expect a slightly melon-like juiciness or a lemony brightness from Moscatel pisco.

Pedro Ximinez: Most imbibers will recognize this white grape varietal as one commonly used in sherry production, but it is also a popular pisco base in both Chile and Peru because of its high sugar content. It almost appears in blended piscos.  

Quebranta: Acholado (blended) piscos often carry a high percentage of this relatively non-aromatic grape. Because it’s barely aromatic, it blends well with other, more assertive pisco varietals. On its own, it is often described as having smooth, light flavors of hay and bananas.

Torontel: A Muscat derivative closely related to Torrontes, piscos made with Torontel are known for their powerful floral aroma that lasts long into the sipping experience as well, blooming with roses, violets and gardenias.

Uvina: Another relative of the Muscat grape, Uvina is classified as a “non-aromatic” grape and lends the finished spirit an incredibly clean flavor with subtle notes of fresh-pressed olive oil and hay.