While there are some healthy rivalries in the spirits industry – the Irish and Scots will always tell you that their whisk(e)y is better, and the Russians and Polish will always fight over the origin and superiority of their vodka – these rivalries pale in comparison to what’s happening in South America between Peru and Chile. Peru claims an AOC (appellation of origin) over pisco, which is recognized by many major companies, however some countries, like the United States, recognizes “Chilean Pisco” as its own category (we also labeled cachaca as “Brazilian Rum” for years and years until it was finally corrected).
In Peru, pisco is manufactured by very strict rules regarding which grape varieties can be used (Quebranta, Torontel, Moscatel, Italia, Albilla, Uvina, and Negro Corriente), how long it can be fermented (18 days), how it is distilled (in copper pot stills), how it is aged (a process called repose which is resting the spirit in glass or stainless for at least three months), and what can and can’t be added to the bottle (nothing but the spirit).
In Chile, the regulations are different for producing pisco. The grapes used are different (Muscat, Pedro Jimenez, and Torontel), the distillation is different (column stills are often used), the aging is different (wood barrels are often used), and what can be added to the bottle is different (the spirit is often diluted from 150 proof down to 80 proof).
The battle between Peru and Chile over pisco has been a regional one, until now. Kappa Chilean Pisco brings the pisco turf war out of South America and into the United States, perhaps the ultimate battle ground for pisco.
Kappa Chilean Pisco (42.5% / 85 proof, $34.00) is the most significant Chilean Pisco on the market. What separates Kappa from other lesser known Chilean brands (like Waqar, Espiritu de Elqui, and Alto del Carmen) is the backing of the Marnier Lapostolle family, makers of Grand Marnier. The Lapostolle part of the equation comes from the well known and regarded Lapostolle wines from Chile. Kappa Chilean Pisco comes from the Elqui Valley of Chile (the product is actually labeled as Pisco Elqui-Chile) and is made from Alexandria and Rose Muscat grapes.
As with many other piscos, the nose on Kappa is floral with a light honeysuckle undertone. Compared to leading Peruvian piscos Pisco Porton and Campo de Encanto , the nose on Kappa is much lighter, much more restrained, and without any of the funk that tends to give Peruvian pisco its character. The entry is bright and full with clear grape mid notes and floral high notes. The floral qualities ramp up in the midpalate where the spirit takes on a bit of heat and picks up a lemon peel citrus note. The heat builds at the end of the midpalate to a peak and then falls off for a long, dry finish, leaving a light citrus peel and floral essence on the palate.
Kappa Chilean Pisco is dramatically different on the palate from Peruvian pisco. It has a lighter mouthfeel, a much drier finish, and less intensity of flavor. Since pisco really isn’t often sipped neat, the real test of Kappa is in the Pisco Sour. In a sour, Kappa’s floral qualities are nice, but it lacks the body and character that help really balance the drink. The lemon citrus notes in Kappa also push the sour out of balance (we used the classic Pisco Sour recipe of 2 ounces pisco, 1 ounce simple, 1 ounce lime juice, and 1 egg white). In a blind taste test with our Drink Spirits tasting panel, the pisco sours made with Peruvian pisco were consistently picked over the Chilean.
It’s easy to understand why the Marnier Lapostolle family would bring out a lighter and ‘cleaner’ product to the American market, given how dominated the market is by neutral spirits/vodka. Pisco is anything but neutral, with fantastic aromatic flavors and character, but the thing we love about pisco has been slightly stripped away here. Kappa isn’t a terrible product, and we can see how it may be nice as a vodka alternative. Kappa seems like it’s more at home as a stand-in for vodka in a Lemon Drop than in a Pisco Sour. The Marnier Lapostolle family have also done a superb job on the package for Kappa, whose bottle is nothing short of striking.
Ultimately, Kappa Chilean Pisco moves the pisco category in the wrong direction. Rather than pandering to drinkers’ neutral-leaning palates, the spirits industry should be looking to help expand that palate. The food revolution of the past five years has shown that people will seek out interesting and enjoyable flavor combinations, and pisco can offer that, but perhaps only Peruvian pisco can.