Drink: Pisco—the original sailor's fave. Who knew?


La Mar, San Francisco

Earlier this week I attended a BarSol Pisco tasting at La Mar Cebicheria de Peruana in San Francisco. I took off midday and started drinking hard liquor and cocktails at 3pm—all in the name of work. Hey, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Que es Pisco?

Good question. Pull up a barstool and take a seat my friend.

True Pisco is a Peruvian clear spirit distilled from grapes, mostly from the Muscat family, and the result is a brandy-like liquor. It has been produced in the Americas since the 1500s and was once the darling of the San Francisco cocktail scene. In fact, San Francisco is credited with popularizing Pisco throughout North America. (I had no idea! Where have I been?)


In the 1500s, the Spanish began to plant wine in the southern regions that are now Peru. Premium grapes were used to make fine wines and lower quality grapes were set aside to distill a brandy-like liquor. This liquor gained popularity with sailors who transported it between the colonies and Spain, and they called it Pisco, naming it after the Peruvian port city where it could be found. Its popularity with the sailing-set spread the export of Pisco around the world until the demand for Pisco equaled that for wine.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Pisco was a mainstay on ocean-crossing vessels and a favorite among sailors.

In the mid 1800s it was introduced by Peruvian and Chilean miners to San Francisco during the gold rush and was the Bay Area’s number one selling liquor until prohibition.

“[Pisco is the] highest and noblest product of age … I have a theory it is compounded of cherubs wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and the fragments of lost epics of dead masters …”—Rudyard Kipling in his book, From Sea to Sea

Drunk much, Mr. Kipling?


San Francisco bartender Duncan Nicol of the Bank Exchange Saloon invented the Pisco Punch cocktail in the 1870s and it was by far the city’s most popular drink. Until his death he never disclosed the cocktail’s secret recipe and he is credited with popularizing Pisco throughout mainstream society in the U.S. (He also opened San Francisco’s first ladies lounge that would allow them to drink Pisco Punch and that’s the real reason I like him. He was a feminist. Or maybe just an opportunist. Whatever, it works for me.)


The Pisco Sour was served in 1915 by Victor Morris, an American immigrant from Salt Lake City, Utah who moved to Lima, Peru and opened the Morris Bar. (How ironic. Was Utah a dry state even then?) From there the Pisco Sour and its derivative cousin, the Whiskey Sour, became a sensation and the Pisco Sour ended up as the national drink of Peru.


Only Peru and Chile can produce brandy under the name of Pisco; however, the similarities stop there. Chilean Pisco  uses different grapes (only three varieties and none are aromatic), is mass-produced and watered down to reduce the alcohol content to between 30 and 55 percent.

Peruvian Pisco is made using eight varieties of grapes (including aromatics), is only made in small artisnal batches and is distilled to final proof without dilution, which maintains the full flavor and character of the liquor.


During our tasting of BarSol’s Piscos (100% Peruvian), we compared four varietals of Pisco. Three were of single-grape production and you could taste the difference in the grapes: a fruity-floral, a soft musty that reminded me so much of Scotch, and a sharper citrusy. The last, the Acholado, is a blend of several varieties of Pisco and was by far the smoothest and most pleasant to the taste. At least that was the consensus of me and my new-found friends.

But let’s get to the good stuff. You can drink it straight, kind of like a grappa, but really, it shines in a cocktail.


Classic Pisco Sour
2 oz Pisco
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz pasteurized egg white (or 1 small egg white)
Drops Angostura Bitters

Shake with ice and strain into cocktail glass.

San Francisco Pisco Punch
2 oz Pisco
2 oz pineapple juice
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
1 cherry for garnish
Pineapple chunks for garnish

Shake with ice and strain into ice filled glass.


And because this post hasn’t been excruciatingly long enough, I leave you with a sailor toast.

Friends may come and friends may go,
Friends may sail away you know,
Though friends will stick through thick and thin,
Sail on out and sail back in…….
(Chin chin!!)


One response »

  1. Pingback: Food: Nduja—what is it? « Skipper’s Log

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