Pisco pack leaders

28 April, 2023

Divided across two nations, pisco is badly in need of leaders to take it into the wider world.

Every drinks category, at some stage in its history, needs leaders. Johnnie Walker pioneered the blended Scotch movement in the early 19th century, the ‘big four’ of the Cognac region continue to spearhead cognac’s growth, while Patrón is taking premium tequila volumes to the next level. Pisco, both Peruvian and Chilean, has needed leadership like this for some time.

The debate over origin will likely never be settled, but the two nations have different dynamics when it comes to pisco. With different regulations the spirit is similar in profile and style, but not the same, and the Peruvian brands have largely piggybacked off thriving Peruvian gastronomy around the world. Meanwhile, in Chile sales have been dominated by the domestic market and campaigns have been led by the governing body to infiltrate international bar scenes.

Peru’s new groove

According to Drinks International’s annual Brands Report, which monitors spirits sales among a selection of the world’s best bars, both Chilean and Peruvian pisco performed well at the top end of the on-trade. “This year, 83% of our sample said they stock a pisco, with more than half having two and more than a third stocking three,” the report read.

“Once again the bestselling pisco is Barsol, which was launched by Diego Loret de Mola in 2001 when he acquired Bodega San Isidro in the Ica Valley in Peru, with a view to taking pisco to the world’s best bars. Topping our table ever since we’ve been polling on pisco – seven years now – this time out Barsol was the bestseller in 29% of our sample, while more than half made it among their top three. It’s the pisco customers call for too – a third of our bars made it their top trending pisco.”

Barsol therefore appears to be emerging as the leader which pisco, specifically on the Peruvian side, has been waiting for. Loret de Mola told Drinks International that the brand is in a better place post-pandemic and there are plans in place to push Barsol to the next level.

“Our concentration has always been on the export market because our mission is to bring quality pisco to bars all around the world,” says Loret de Mola. “We’re not trying to dominate the domestic market or just sell in huge volumes. We want to stay authentic and genuine and remain at a fair price for our growers.

“For us the pandemic was a blessing in disguise. Before Covid we were selling 21,000 cases and by the end of 2021 we were at around 42,000 and by the end of 2022 we’d reached 62,000. Lockdowns provided the perfect opportunity for people to learn more about pisco because life in the fast lane had previously prevented this from happening. It turned from a push strategy into a pull strategy and before the pandemic our sales were probably 70% on-premise, which we thought was a problem at the time. But with people making cocktails at home and ecommerce booming we did well. We changed our website to host its own shop and without any Google ads or marketing, bottles started to move.

“But what’s truly great is that while restaurants and bars are back open, some of the ecommerce has remained. If I can get the private funding we’re after then we will double our current capacity to around 120,000 cases. We’re also planning on a line extension with new grape varieties as well as experimenting with different grape-based products such as vermouths and fortified wines.”

Loret de Mola insists that authenticity and quality remain central to the brand, but the rapid rise in its volume makes Barsol a prime candidate to lead Peruvian pisco forward, which it’s so far done through listings in the world’s best bars.

Chile’s gap

Across the border in Chile, Covid-19 had a more negative effect. Pre-pandemic Drinks International visited Chile’s main pisco regions in the Elqui Valley and Atacama Desert to discuss the changing focus to exports from domestic sales.

“Pisco is huge in Chile and it’s what most people drink here, but domestic consumption is falling,” said Pisco Chile brand ambassador Rodrigo Flores back in 2020. “A combination of healthier lifestyles and a wider choice of drinks has contributed to people drinking less pisco, so we need to look outside Chile to ensure the growth of the category.”

Jessica Fernandez Moreno, export manager for CCU’s Pisquera de Chile pisco subsidiary, added: “The main challenge for Chilean pisco is to develop the category throughout the world by building new business relationships with new importers in relevant markets such as Asia, Europe and Latin America. Once we have entered each one of the markets, the idea is to develop a strategy through education to spread knowledge about the category with our portfolio. These days the consumption of pisco in Chile is stable and not growing, so we are putting all our efforts into making pisco as known as any other leading spirits category.”

In fact, according to IWSR figures, Chilean pisco consumption dropped 2% between 2020 and 2021 and Flores has since told Drinks International about Pisco Chile’s plans to attend major trade shows around the world, suggesting that exports are back in focus following a pretty turbulent pandemic for the sector.

Chile’s domestic sales have always been big, which is why there are some major players such as Mistral – a regular member of Drinks International’s The Millionaires’ Club – and Capel, as well as the government cooperative known as CCU Pisquera de Chile. But none of them have been able to successfully bridge both domestic and international sales.

DI’s Brands Report reads: “El Gobernador, which debuted on the list in 2018, is the second bestselling brand. Based in Chile and owned by Torres – which knows a thing or two about grape spirits – this you feel is the brand with the best chance of dethroning Barsol one day. El Gobernador was named the top seller by 12% of bars, while it was on the pisco podium in 20% of our sample.”

At the brand’s winery in the Penedès region of Spain, Miguel Torres Maczassek, the fifth generation of Torres winemakers and general manager, told Drinks International: “It’s been an amazing journey for us in the pisco category. We launched the brand in 2012 with limited expectations – it was more of a passion project than anything else – and it’s hard to believe just how successful the brand has been.”

It’s encouraging to see a brand backed by the knowhow and distribution power of Torres, beginning to thrive and El Gobernador could be positioned to lead from the front in a similar way to Barsol in its neighbouring country.

Sour hour

While sales and exports have fluctuated for decades across both Chilean and Peruvian pisco markets, one constant has been the popularity of the Pisco Sour. In fact, in Drinks International’s list of 50 Bestselling Classic Cocktails in 2023, the drink was listed number 12 – its highest rank to date.

Similar to pisco, there’s a debate over the cocktail’s origin, but both nations have their own variation. “While Chile and Peru both lay claim to pisco as their national spirit,” reads the report, “the latter is almost certainly the birthplace of this South American brandy’s most widely-known cocktail. The drink is most commonly attributed to American bartender Victor Vaughen Morris, who arrived in Peru in 1903. Somewhere between that date and 1916, when he opened Morris’ Bar in the capital of Lima, he’s said to have invented the drink that would put his establishment on the map. There are competing stories but, regardless, it’s the Peruvian version that endures, combining pisco with lime, sugar and egg white, garnished with bitters.”

It would be naïve to suggest both sub-categories should work together for the greater good of pisco. Not only are the interpretations of the spirit’s origin different, but the Pisco Sour recipe, the style of pisco and the markets are all very different. The only thing they really share, other than a border, is the need for leaders, and Barsol and El Gobernador could be the natural fit to take centre stage for their respective nations.

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