Brandy -- a centuries-old spirit officially known as brandywine, or "burnt wine" -- is not for everyone. Its bouquet turns noses, and its caramel color, which resembles bourbon, screams "the hard stuff."
As a result, many consumers probably never heard of its more palatable, South American cousin, pisco -- clear grape brandy popular in Peru and Chile since the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Before last March, when the PLCB added pisco to its inventory, the brandy was almost non-existent in Pennsylvania.
Like all grape brandies, pisco is made by distilling fermented grape juice. But whereas most brandy-makers age the juices in wooden casks, then dilute the results with water, pisco makers must adhere to Peruvian law (yeah, they take it that seriously). They "rest" the juices for less than three months in vessels of glass or stainless steel, which don't alter its chemical properties. And the mixture is undiluted.
This process yields a clear, un-aged, 86-proof spirit that is slightly fruiter and smoother than caramel-colored brandy.
"[Conventional] brandy is darker and more potent," says Rick McCullough, bartender at South Side's YoRita, which stocks a Chilean version of pisco. The sweeter, almost floral pisco, he says, is "nice and smooth."
You can special-order pisco or buy the only brand currently available in stores: Don Cesar Pisco Puro (750 ml $25.99).
McCullough suggests sipping it on the rocks with a twist of lime or splash of lime juice -- to draw out the clean fruit flavors.
But if you want something more quaffable, try Pisco Punch. Steep fresh pineapple slices in a "rich simple" syrup (dissolve two parts sugar in one part water over low heat) and let the concoction infuse overnight. Then combine three parts pisco to one part syrup and put it in the fridge. When you want a cocktail, legendary mixologist David Wondrich advises, mix 2 oz. of the pisco-syrup mix with ¾ oz. water and the juice of half a lemon. Shake with ice, strain into a glass and serve with a soaked pineapple slice.