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Chilean Today, Cool Forever

Elyse Glickman


Though the origins and cultural "ownership" of pisco have been a subject of debate between Chileans and Peruvians for generations, the category's emergence in the 21st century is piquing interest stateside. In 2010, sales of pisco from both Peru and Chile skyrocketed by 101 percent, which according to the Comisión Nacional del Pisco of Peru, makes it the fastest growing spirit in the U.S.

Chilean pisco is "real pisco" . . . and really Chilean.

Chilean pisco distillers, not surprisingly, are using this opportunity to define their market share by explaining to beverage buyers and the public what makes Chilean pisco "real pisco". . . and really Chilean.

"In Chile, pisco is a name given exclusively to the distillate, or spirit, produced with grapes from a specific flavor profile (Muscat) that grow and mature in the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo and prepared and packaged according to laws established by the Chilean government," explains Fernando Herrera, General Manager of Pisco Producers Association and President of the Pisco Export Promotion Program.

"[Peruvian pisco] is a product made under different conditions in form and content. It only shares the same name with the product of Chile. At the core, the two products are different."

Muscat grapes growing for pisco.

While Chileans don't dispute Peruvian discourse on the spirit's origins (dating back to the 1500s, when the Spanish first brought the grapes used for pisco into the Viceroyalty of Peru, a territory which extends into present-day Chile), they cite statistics supporting the argument that Chilean distillers make and sell far more of the spirit on a global level.

According to newly launched organization Pisco Chile, Chilean brands Capel and Alto del Carmen have been widely available across the U.S. and for years, while KAPPA (a Grand Marnier venture) broke into the U.S. market on the West Coast, and is slated for a New York launch this summer. However, throughout 2012, many more brands, from budget to premium, will be making their debut, to the delight of home mixologists, cocktail lounge devotes and beverage pros alike.

Sour Pulse

Mixologists and home users getting sweet on sours may ask themselves what brands are best for cocktails. Some surprising answers are out there. At $19 per 750 ml. bottle, Capel (a staple in bars and restaurants throughout Chile) is a great value for a quality spirit. While it is a solid choice foundation for Pisco Sours, its mild flavor makes it ideal for punches and batched cocktails. People who like stronger flavors and want more depth to their cocktail, meanwhile, will like Alto del Carmen ($25), aged for six months in old American oak barrels.

Capel, Alto del Carmen and KAPPA represent the best in Chilean pisco.

Recent Star Chef inductee Jason Littrell, known for his innovative pisco-based cocktails New York City's Dram Bar, notes the things that define Chilean Pisco's flavor profiles make them an essential addition to a mixologist's toolkit.

"Pisco from Chile must rest for at least 60 days after distillation," he says.

"Some producers choose to extend this period and let it rest in inactive wood for more than two to three years before bottling. Others use French or American oak to age the pisco and impart a caramel color and flavors like vanilla and spice to the spirit."

Mixologists on both the North and South American continents, meanwhile, are bringing added allure to the classic sour recipe through innovations that factor in a variety of fruits and spices, some indigenous to Chile. In addition to Littrell, mixology author David Wondrich has collaborated with Pisco Chile to create a portfolio of pisco cocktails. Claudia Olmedo, one of Chile's top mixologists and sommeliers, and food and wine writer Daniel Greve penned 40 Grados, a book about Chilean pisco's history, tradition and brands, now being translated into English for international distribution.

Sour Tastefulness

When it comes to reinventing the "modern sour," it is fascinating to observe and taste just how far mixologists from Santiago to Southern Patagonia are willing to go, whether the recipe is enlivened with familiar fruits like strawberries or grapefruit or more exotic ingredients, such as indigenous berries such as maqui, murta and califate. 

In keeping with its food-as-entertainment premise, Santiago molecular cuisine hotspot Boragó produces an elegant Murta Sour, while the restaurant at the buzz-worthy Aubrey Hotel, excels with variations using basil, cucumber and raspberries that compliment their modern farm-to-table menu. In Puerto Varas, in Northern Patagonia ("The Lake District" of Chile) the bar at Hotel Patagónico features sours with fresh ginger and green apple.

Nearby fine-dining restaurant Ibis offers a grapefruit sour made with Capel Pisco that beautifully pairs with their signature salmon dish. Around the corner, El Patio di Mi Casa features a raspberry Pisco Sour that balances out their hearty traditional Chilean country comfort food.

While outdoor sports and adventure is the main draw of Tierra Patagonia, a newly opened resort at the edge of the Torres del Paine national park in Southern Patagonia, manager Chris Purcell notes that their bar and food programs help round out their guest's experience as well as their efforts to make the emerging "luxury eco-tourism" category their own.

The Aubrey Hotel's Cucumber-Basil Sour.

"One of the great pleasures of travel is trying new things, and mixology that incorporates things uniquely Chilean is essential," Purcell says. "While we offer our version of the classic sour, we have developed another with the califate berry. We also just added our new 'Lago Grey' cocktail, inspired by that natural attribute of the park, and plan to create more cocktails that invoke some of the park's most spectacular geological formations."

While calafate, maqui and murta are not widely available in U.S. produce markets, ambitious mixologists may want to consider keeping preserves of these berries on the bar, especially if it is their intention to take their guests beyond the common Pisco Sour. They can be found at online shops like New York City's Puro Chile.

"Pisco from Chile is incredible versatile, as the wide range of styles and flavor profiles allow it to be substituted for virtually anything," concludes Littrell. "It can be clear and fairly neutral, possess floral notes, have citrus flavors or resemble darker spirits with vanilla, spice, caramel and noble fruit flavors. The rise in popularity can also be attributed to the increase in travel to South America and the many travel stories written about Chile, where Pisco Sours are hugely popular. One can also say it is the result of the collaborative effort of these producers to push the exportation of their spirit, invest in creating awareness of the product and the ways in which it can be enjoyed."

Hot in Chile: Fun Facts about Perennially Popular Pisco 

  • Chile has been producing Pisco for the past four and half centuries, in the same areas.
  • The Chilean pisco industry is primarily made up of small producers, with even the large producers relying on tiny, family-owned cooperatives to supply grapes and to participate in decision-making for the company. 
  • Pisco is a family business. Several brands are family-owned and most of the distillers are third-, fourth- and fifth-generation. 
  • More pisco is consumed in Chile than other country in the world. 
  • The most popular cocktail in Chile is not the Pisco Sour, but the Piscola (pisco and Coke). 
  • Natural barriers such as the Andes, the Atacama Desert and the Pacific coast protect the regions from pests and diseases, providing a pure environment for grape growth. Most grapes are grown under organic conditions for this reason.
  • The Elquí Valley (where many of the piscos are produced) is blessed with one of the clearest skies in the world and home to several observatories and is a common destination for astronomers. 


Calafate Sour
Tierra Patagonia, Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

2 oz. Capel Pisco
1½ oz. calafate juice or purée*
½ oz. simple syrup
½ oz. lemon juice
1 Tbs. pasteurized egg white

In a cocktail shaker add all the ingredients. Shake energetically around 15 seconds. Pour in a flute with ice and filter with a fine strainer.

*1 or 2 Tbs of calafate purée or syrup can also be substituted.



Terragno Cocina Sour

Maria Eugenia Terragno Merino, Santiago, Chile
(makes 2-3 servings)

3 oz. pisco
1 oz. lime juice
1 Tbs. pasteurized egg white
1 inch ginger root, peeled and cut in small pieces; or
4 basil leaves
1 Tbs. organic bee honey
½ cup crushed ice

Put all the ingredients in the blender and process till a lot of foam forms. Pour into a frozen champagne flute.


Grapefruit Sour
inspired by Ibis Restaurant, Puerto Varas, Chile

2 oz. Capel Pisco
1½ oz. fresh grapefruit juice or 3 slices of fresh grapefruit
½ oz. simple syrup
2-4 ice cubes
1 Tbs. pasteurized egg white

In a cocktail shaker add all the ingredients. Shake energetically for around 15 seconds. Pour in a glass with ice and filter with a fine strainer.


Pisco Raspberry Dreams
Inspired by Casa de Mi Patio, Puerto Varas, Chile

2 oz. Capel Pisco
¾ oz. opear juice
1 oz. raspberry puree
½ oz. lemon juice
1 Tbs. pasteurized egg white

In a cocktail shaker add all the ingredients, and energetically for around 15 seconds. Filter with a fine strainer and pour into a champagne flute.

   Santiago Adventures: The Best Way to See Chile

Many of the fine restaurant dinner, culinary experiences, winery visits and the bike and walking tours for this and the Casa Marin feature were arranged by Santiago Adventures, who have won the hearts of foodies and other discerning travelers through their custom tours to Santiago's mountains, coast and vineyards.

Their tours range from active day tours, in the Santiago region, to specialty tour packages throughout Chile. They were instrumental in ensuring that we were exposed to the best food and drink the city and surrounding area had to offer.

For more information, especially with winery tours, bike expeditions and connections to companies like Paseos en Bicicleta and Foody Chile, please visit www.santiagoadventures.com.

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