In September 2022, when the Chilean wine brand Lapostolle launched its first range of pisco, Winebow Imports jumped on the opportunity to introduce its two expressions stateside. For Diego Lo Prete, the senior vice president of marketing and global brands at Winebow, it made obvious business sense; the oft-overlooked category has recently shown record performance.
“Historically, growing from a low base at 3 to 3.5 percent annually, [U.S.] consumption jumped by a whopping 33 percent during the peak of COVID-19,” says Lo Prete. While it later slowed, it had still attained “a new plateau for pisco in the U.S.”
Lapostolle’s Pisco Blanco and Pisco XO are made using two aromatic Muscat grape varieties, pink muscat and Muscat of Alexandria, and produced in a process similar to that used for Cognac, double-distilled in a copper alembic still—which would disqualify it from being labeled pisco in Peru. The two countries both have a DO for the colorless grape distillate, but it varies significantly in production and flavor profile, which is perhaps why consumer awareness of the category remains hazy, despite years of bar industry professionals waxing lyrical about its potential.
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One such professional is Ivy Mix, a cofounder of Speed Rack, co-owner of Leyenda (which features six piscos on its menu) and FIASCO! Wine and Spirits in Brooklyn, and the author of Spirits of Latin America. In 2023, she forecast this to be the year of pisco—as she has many times before. For her, pisco ticks all the boxes: “It is a clear spirit (so many people only want clear), made from grapes (not grain that I find more frequently people are trying to avoid), and it has a rich, cultural history and story.”
How Well Is Pisco Performing?
In 2021, Peruvian pisco exports saw an increase of 47.5 percent compared to 2020, according to The Commission for the Promotion of Peru (PromPerú), with the U.S. their leading destination. Between January and November 2021, the U.S. market imported $3.3 million of pisco. This growth might be thanks to promotional campaigns; in 2019, PromPerú launched their “Pisco, Spirit of Peru” brand to promote the national drink at trade shows and events, and they opened two pisco training schools in Europe.
“Growth has been great,” says Michael Turley, the director of education and sales at Caravedo Pisco, which launched in the U.S. in 2010 (originally as Pisco Portón) and is distilled in the oldest working distillery in Peru. “Since the pandemic, we’ve grown over 300 percent. People were looking online to learn about new things and that really helped us out, even though the majority of our business is on-premise.”
Caravedo along with other big players like Barsol and Chilean Capel and El Gobernador have historically dominated the market share in the U.S. There have been recent new launches, too. In 2018, Catan Pisco became the first pisco produced for a North American audience, founded by Santiago-born and California-raised Catalina Bentz, who also became the first Chilean woman to own a pisco brand. The premium pisco is distilled from 100 percent Pedro Ximénez grapes harvested from an organic and fairtrade vineyard in Ovalle, Chile. In 2019, Alex Hildebrandt and Ian Leggett began exploring bringing Peruvian pisco to the U.S. with their brand Suyo Pisco; since then, the Peruvian-American duo has launched two labels focused on single-origin, small-batch pisco handcrafted at independently owned vineyards in Peru. With a focus on U.S. consumers in their marketing and packaging, these pisco launches have helped raise the category’s profile.
In turn, pisco seems to be appearing more regularly on back bars and cocktail menus, with Peruvian pisco piggybacking on the trend for Peruvian cuisine—for example, in New York City, at the Cantina & Pisco Bar inside Ian Schrager’s Public Hotel, which launched in 2021, and at Artesano, which launched in October 2022 and offers a pisco cocktail flight; or, in Washington D.C., at the highly-anticipated Causa, which opened in May 2022 and has a pisco library.
At liquor stores, Lo Prete says pisco is also now “well distributed,” though their focus for Lapostolle’s pisco is on-premise. “At Winebow Imports … we leverage a strong network of wholesalers and a team of specialists with deep connections in the restaurant business,” he says. “This allows Lapostolle pisco to be sold along with premium wines in this channel, focusing on cocktail recipes, including the Chilean classic, a Pisco Sour.”
What’s Holding Pisco Back?
Despite years of predictions of pisco’s success, it’s still considered novel by consumers. Lynnette Marrero, an award-winning bartender, consultant, educator, and cofounder of Speed Rack, points out this novelty can work in its favor when it comes to curious drinkers, but it also demonstrates that awareness and education around the spirit is still lacking. “Cocktails are a natural place to push new spirits,” she says. “You can see this effect with sherry. Until Steve Olson started training on the wine, bartenders didn’t use it; now you can barely see a craft program without it.”
First on the agenda, according to Bentz, is to stop referring to pisco as brandy, because the latter can be distilled from any fruit, while pisco can only be distilled from “very specific grapes,” she stresses. “The initial education piece consumers have to understand is that pisco is a stand-alone category like vodka or tequila.”
This education can start with bartenders informing consumers that pisco’s most popular drink is named after its base spirit. “Pisco has been hiding behind the Pisco Sour cocktail for most of its history,” says Hildebrandt. “It hasn’t been presented as the high-quality, complex spirit that it is.”
Mix agrees. “Many people don’t know the difference between Chilean or Peruvian pisco, let alone the different grapes that can be used,” she says. Marrero suggests that changing how pisco is listed on cocktail menus could help educate drinkers. “Don’t just say pisco. Labeling these marques by the type of pisco is important to show range. So say Torontel pisco, Acholado, or Quebranta on the menu, which helps show that there is a vast difference and not a one-size-fits-all pisco.”
As Hildebrandt points out, “consumers in the U.S. are not familiar with the varieties that are available because so few producers and brands have the resources to export them.” This brings up another hindrance for the spirit, which is that none of the biggest spirits companies like Diageo or Bacardi represent a pisco yet. “So they’re not spending their collective cash to get liquid to lips,” says Mix.
And why not, when it’s demonstrating steady growth? “The category is still developing brand leadership positions and there is no player standing out at this point,” says Lo Prete. “Brands are very fragmented and most of them are still niche.”
Hildebrandt suggests that if industry participants worked together to educate about the pisco category overall, not just their own brands, it could work to all their benefit. “This requires a unified front amongst producers, as we’ve seen in other categories such as mezcal. Producers, brands, and others in the category can be most impactful by joining together to show consumers the quality and complexity of the spirit.”
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