Once the original San Francisco treat, the elegant South American brandy pisco is making a countrywide comeback.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
For the longest time, Johnny Schuler barely gave pisco a passing thought. Back in 1977, the successful Peruvian restaurateur and wine aficionado only used the strong, colorless South American brandy to concoct Pisco Sours, a cocktail constructed with egg whites, simple syrup, bitters, and lemon or lime juice. Pisco was for mixing, not savoring solo. But one day a colleague called him, distressed. It was the middle of a pisco competition, and the tasters were tipsy: Instead of spitting out samples, they were swallowing them.
Schuler volunteered to lend his palate. His first four samples barely merited a raised eyebrow. Then the fifth glass was poured. “I said, ‘What’s this?’ ” recalls Schuler, who sniffed the glass deeply. He took a tiny taste, then another. “It was smooth, round, and elegant,” Schuler sighs. “It was beautiful. It dawned on me that pisco was a whole world of flavors. From that day forward, I haven’t stopped drinking it.”
Despite a heritage that stretches back to the sixteenth century, when Spanish settlers devised the distilled elixir in Peru, pisco barely registers on imbibers’ radars. The oversight should soon be corrected. In recent years, top-shelf piscos have set sail from South America to the States, where barkeeps have put their spin on the spirit that looks like vodka, but boasts a multifaceted flavor and bouquet.
At New York City’s sultry, subterranean 1534, the Pisco Sour is given an Asian twist thanks to lemongrass syrup, ginger juice, and a dusting of chai green tea. In Chicago, modern Latin restaurant Nacional 27’s Chicha Sour is made with pisco plus an infusion of egg whites, purple corn, lime, and bitters. Across the country, San Francisco’s Pisco Latin Lounge mixes its namesake with everything from cilantro to absinthe to passion fruit. Elsewhere in town, Cantina serves a cavalcade of pisco cocktails, including a punch packed with crushed pineapple, citrus juice, Angostura bitters, and “secret sauce.” Consider this a return to form.
During the gold-rush era, pisco landed in California aboard traders’ vessels. San Franciscans quickly cottoned to the brandy, especially bartenders’ newfangled creation: the pineapple-loaded Pisco Punch. “It was the fashionable drink to have in San Francisco,” says Schuler, who also hosts the TV show Por Las Rutas del Pisco and wrote several books on pisco. The strapping punch ruled San Francisco bars till 1920, when Prohibition severed the pisco supply.
Nowadays, there’s no shortage. But there are crucial lessons to learn before buying your first bottle. For starters, look at the country of origin. While both Chilean and Peruvian pisco are fashioned from fermented grape juice, the Chilean version is distilled to rocket-fuel strength, usually around 150 proof. It’s then aged in wooden barrels and diluted to about 80 proof, resulting in a harsher spirit that’s typically paired with soda. By contrast, Peruvian pisco is distilled to bottle strength (around 76 to 86 proof), then sent to slumber in a nonreactive container, perhaps made of glass, cement, copper, or stainless steel. The result is a purer-tasting spirit, the unadulterated essence of grapes.
Try choice Peruvian expressions such as the silky Campo de Encanto (“Field of Enchantment”), which has a floral, slightly fruity bouquet. Also excellent are the earthy, fullbodied Macchu Pisco, which has a subtly peppery note, and the smooth BarSol—the gentle bouquet of ripe fruit is beguiling. Then there’s Schuler’s noble entry to the marketplace, Pisco Portón. “It’s a gentleman’s drinking spirit, a spirit for conversation,” Schuler says of his creation. The refined potion drinks warm and slightly raisin-sweet, filled with grassy aromas that detour to tropical fruit and chocolate. It’s a little like … well, “It’s not comparable to anything,” Schuler says. “Pisco is its own category. It’s the newest—and oldest—drink on the market.”
|2 ounces Pisco Portón|
|1 teaspoon fresh lime juice|
|1 teaspoon simple syrup|
|1 slice of ginger|
|1 dash of bitters|
|Pour all the ingredients except the ginger ale into a tall glass with ice. Fill with ginger ale. Stir and garnish with a lime wedge.|