by Jeffery Lindenmuth
It seems that every classic cocktail has been resuscitated. From martinis and Manhattans to Sidecars and Gin Fizzes, there’s little left to tempt the taste buds of consumers seeking entirely new experiences. So, if you’re really looking to make an impression, you’ll have to dig deeper, maybe all the way back to mid-nineteenth century San Francisco, when revelers in the thriving city consumed cocktails made with a largely forgotten spirit called Pisco.
What is it?
Pisco means two very different things to two somewhat rival neighbors: the South American nations of Chile and Peru. Both nations produce Pisco, and both are, in the broadest sense, unaged brandies made by fermenting and distilling grapes. But, the results could not be more different.
Chilean Pisco, like the popular brand Capel, is made in a column still through continuous distillation much like vodka and other neutral spirits. It is then aged in oak barrels. Peruvian Pisco is made in copper pot stills, or occasionally more traditional “flaca” in a batch process like Cognac. It is rested a minimum of three months, but is not permitted to be aged in oak.
In addition, Peruvian Pisco must be made from recently fermented musts from one or more of the approved grape varieties. And, it holds the unique distinction among distilled spirits of being distilled to proof, meaning the distiller has to skillfully create a spirit of 38% to 46% alcohol to which no water can be added. Virtually every other spirit has water added to reach a nice, round-numbered proof of 70, 80, or maybe 86.
It’s understandable that Peru should take Pisco so seriously. Lexicographers researching the word "pisco" have determined that it comes from an indigenous Peruvian word meaning "bird." With the large number of seabirds inhabiting the southern coastal valley of Peru, the word soon lent itself to a river, a town, a port and finally, the white spirit produced there and destined to sail to San Francisco.
Start with the Classics
According to Diego Loret de Mola, president of BevMax International Inc., a spirits consulting company, and an enthusiastic Pisco ambassador, the classic Pisco cocktails offer bartenders and consumers the perfect gateway to his beloved home country. "Traditionally, a cocktail makes the spirit," says Loret de Mola. "The margarita made tequila, which had been around for hundreds of years. A cocktail can make it easier to appreciate the spirit. And we have the Pisco Sour as a flagship, invented around 1915. And, the Pisco Punch even preceded that."
Choosing a Pisco
There are still relatively few Piscos widely available in the United States.
Without viewing the actual bottle, it can be difficult to distinguish which country a Pisco is from. However, the brands with the largest U.S. distribution are Capel from Chile, and the premium BarSol from Bodega San Isidro Distillery in Peru. Within Peruvian Pisco, there is a vast range of style and flavor made possible by careful regulation of the types of grapes used and traditional blending techniques. The flavor profiles can range from bold and phenolic with chocolate, smoke and rubber to delicate floral and fruity, or highly aromatic and confectionary depending on the grapes and the method of production.
Knowing just a little nomenclature can help you pinpoint one or more Peruvian Piscos to experiment with, offering even more options and variations on the classic cocktails for customers.
The first two words to look for on a Peruvian Pisco are "puro," which indicates the Pisco made from a single grape (think varietal wine) or "acholado," which indicates the Pisco is a house blend of multiple grapes.
Within puro, the grapes are broadly categorized as aromatic, or non-aromatic. The aromatic grapes tend to be white or lighter purple and impart the Pisco with their distinctive floral and fruit aromas.
A New Tool for Top ‘Tenders
"It’s the other white spirit for cocktail making," says Loret de Mola. "It’s big in New York, Miami, Washington DC, San Francisco, and throughout New Jersey. But it also belongs in Dallas, Boston, Nashville, Seattle, Chicago and anywhere great cocktail mixing is going on."
Indeed, Pisco has found fans among some of America's top bartenders, like Gaston Martinez, general manager at Nora’s Cuisine in Las Vegas, who demonstrated his mixological prowess by taking top honors at the Pan-American Cocktail Competition, an International Bartenders Association competition held in Lima in August 2006. Martinez showed his confidence with the spirit by proffering a Pisco cocktail on the Peruvian’s home turf.
Martinez was attracted to Pisco as a spirit that offers personality and versatility. "Vodka is very versatile because it has no flavor. You put vodka in a drink with Ocean Spray or other juices and it’s the same drink but with alcohol. With Pisco, you have alcohol content but also a distinct flavor. Yet the flavor is not as strong as a brown spirit, or even tequila. Pisco is the best of both worlds. You don't change the color or change the flavor too much, but it makes distinctive drinks," says Martinez.
Martinez stumbled on the bright combination of yuzu and Pisco when he was inspired by tasting the bold citrus fruit while dining at Nobu. However, he also marries Pisco to an expansive palette of flavors, including lychee, blackberry, raspberry, blood orange, mint and cilantro, resulting in over 20 original cocktails based on the Peruvian spirit.
According to Martinez, the classic Pisco Sour outsells other drinks 10 to 1, at Nora’s Cuisine, but for those looking to expand their list he offers some advice: "The non-aromatics, and acholado, are more versatile. You're getting closer to a vodka, so you might want to start non-aromatic and then move on," says Martinez. "I, on the other hand, like the aromatic. To some degree, it's a personal preference. But I like the challenge, and I want people to smell and taste this beautiful spirit."
These cocktails are steeped in history and are as easy to make as they are to enjoy. They provide the perfect talking points to add to any cocktail list.
The Pisco Punch is associated with the Bank Exchange Saloon at the corner of Montgomery and Washington Streets in San Francisco. It was refined over a succession of bartenders culminating with Duncan Nichol who never divulged the actual recipe. Even the death of Nichol in 1926 and the efforts of Prohibition did not quench the public’s thirst for this drink, and variations of it remained popular into the 1970s.
The Classic Recipe
This classic recipe was prepared in the Peruvian restaurant Malabar in Peru where Jose Antonio Schiaffino researched Duncan Nichol’s recipe for many years and arrived to a very close approximation of the classic flavor profile of the 1800s:
1 1/2 oz Pisco
1 oz pineapple syrup
3/4 oz fresh lime
1 1/2 oz water
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled flute. Garnish with a pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry.
1 pineapple, peeled & cut into 1” chunks
2 lbs granulated sugar
1 1/2 pints of water
Bring all ingredients to a boil until pineapple begins to soften. Allow to cool for 24 hours. Remove pineapple and strain through a chinois.
Few recipes could be simpler and more refreshing than a classic sour, especially in a ratio of 2:1:1. The egg white gives a beautiful texture and frothiness to the drink, but if you are serving customers you may choose to avoid it or use pasteurized egg whites. This drink, invented by the American Victor Morris, (Morris Bar, Lima-Peru, 1915-1933) remains the most popular drink in Peru today. In Chile, Pisco is more commonly enjoyed in the Piscola, a long drink of Pisco and cola.
Classic Pisco Sour
2 oz Pisco
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
1 tsp pasteurized egg white
Dash Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Top with a dash of bitters.
Classic Pisco Blast
To make his award-winning “Pisco Blast”, bartender Gaston Martinez combines:
1 1/2 oz Pisco
3/4 oz Marie Brizard Peach
1/2 oz yuzu juice
3/4 oz raspberry coulis
2 1/2 oz fresh sour mix
The drink is shaken with ice and can be served up or as a long drink.
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