China Chilcano in Penn Quarter boasts one of the largest selections of pisco in the country. Cocktails, anyone? (Photo by Jason Hornick)

Imagine digging into tacos without sipping a tequila margarita. Or eating a crunchy tuna roll without a cup of sake. That’s how many of the District’s Peruvian food lovers would feel about a world without pisco.

The brandy has been produced in Peru for at least 400 years, and is commonly served with citrus, bitters and egg whites to make up a pisco sour. Right now, the spirit is having a moment in the District, thanks in part to the budding Peruvian food scene. In addition to Peruvian hot spots like China Chilcano, Ocopa, El Chalan and Las Canteras, you can find pisco on the menus at Cuba Libre, DBGB, Del Campo, Lupo Verde, Macon Bistro, Provision No. 14, Tico, Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Zaytinya.

Bartenders are exploring the spirit in greater depth, too, moving beyond the pisco sour.

“We’re seeing how interesting of a spirit it is,” says ThinkFoodGroup beverage director Jasmine Chae, who oversees the pisco collection at China Chilcano. “It’s really fun to work with behind the bar and it has a lot of character.”

The restaurant touts one of the country’s largest pisco selections, with about 30 varieties, along with more than a dozen house-made macerados — pisco infused with fresh fruits and herbs, and ubiquitous in Peruvian households and restaurants. While pisco plays great in cocktails as a brandy, it can also be enjoyed neat. “People should really sip it too, rather than just enjoying it in a cocktail,” Chae says.

Pisco can be made from eight types of grapes, including aromatic and non-aromatic varietals. The result can be aromatic and floral, herbal and grassy, or even spicy.

Peruvian pisco is strictly regulated: It must be distilled to proof, meaning no water is added after distillation, and it cannot be aged in wood, only briefly resting after distillation in nonreactive containers made of such materials as stainless steel or glass. The process leaves the focus of the taste on the grape itself.

Pisco is made in Chile, too, although with different regulations and much contention over its classification. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recognizes pisco from either Peru or Chile, while the European Union recognizes pisco as distinctly Peruvian, for instance.

Locally, Macchu Pisco is a pisco manufacturer based in Bethesda. Founded by Melanie Asher, the company makes its pisco in Peru and then imports it stateside.

“We sometimes call our pisco ‘no llama drama,’ ” she jokes, referring to the animal found in large numbers throughout Peru. Asher takes the strict regulations even further by not adding sulfates and producing an all-natural product from pesticide-free grapes.

Asher has her hands in all phases of Macchu Pisco’s operation. “I’m actually the distiller. I make my own juice,” she says, referring to the fresh distillate.

More local pisco is on the way. Carlos Delgado, the chef at Ocopa — which showcases 16 piscos and a dozen macerados — plans to launch his own pisco brand soon.

By Jake Emen (For Express)

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