Bartenders, especially in San Francisco, have been at the forefront of the return of pisco to the American cocktail repertoire, notably Duggan McDonnell's Encanto. But in the US, it takes a big spender to create a broader market, and the push on behalf of Pisco Porton has helped spread the word wider. Master distiller Johnny Schuler explains the differences in this musto verde pisco and how the American palate is coming around to the pleasures of the South American grape brandy.
Mix: Portón has been instrumental in trying to break open the U.S. market for the pisco spirit - what's special about this brand?
Johnny Schuler: In the U.S. market, Portón is the first pisco created musto verde, a very special distillation process. Musto verde means that we distill from wine when it is still sweet before the sugars fully ferment. As a result, when the wine goes to the copper pot, what comes out is brilliant to the eye and with complex aromatic expressions of fruit and flowers that are just wonderful. The taste, feel and texture of a musto verde is also much more smooth and drinkable, which in turn gives cocktails texture and smoothness.
Mix: In crafting the spirit, did you do anything special to entice the American palate?
Schuler: Portón is my effort to create a perfect pisco. We used three of the eight pisco grapes to create a blend tailored to the fine American palate. The Quebranta grape gives the alcoholic structure, volume and body. The Torontel grape – part of the muscat grape family – gives diverse aromas including orange peels, green apples, peach, raisins, tropical fruits and fresh-baked bread. This aromatic structure makes it elegant. Finally, the Albilla grape has beautiful properties when you blend it with other grapes, giving the final Portón bottle a round, smooth and complete taste structure. These three grapes were blended with the American palate in mind, though the recipe is the same internationally.
Mix: How do you convince Americans that pisco has qualities unlike other grape brandies?
Schuler: When they taste it and you explain its nature, they know it is different. First, you have to differentiate spirits made from wine and grape pomace. Pomace makes grappa, oruja and most other grape brandies. Therefore, pisco is already in very exclusive company. Both Cognac and Armagnac borrow flavor from wood. Pisco is unique because its flavor comes entirely from the structure of the grape. This is why pisco is distilled to proof because we want no additives or other flavoring to compromise this natural flavor. Peruvian pisco is the only brandy that, by law, adds no external influence of aromas or colors to the spirit. We want terroir: the land, the sun, the seasons and the water. That’s what we want to appreciate in a glass of pisco. We don’t want oak or anything artificial. Pisco is colorless because we don’t add anything to change the gift of God: the beautiful and exquisite grapes that become Pisco Portón.
Mix: Explain why musto verde pisco is different from others.
Schuler: Most of the other piscos in the U.S. today are puros. Many of them are very well done but they cannot touch the sophistication and complexity of a musto verde aromatic structure. Of the 500 producers in Peru, only about 20 make musto verdes and most of those are of a single-grape varietal. It is more time-intensive, complex and difficult producing piscos with the musto verde method. Portón is made of three different musto verdes that have been expertly blended together, and that is very rare. Only three or four exist, even in the Peruvian market.
Mix: Do the qualities of musto verde piscos make it better-suited for certain styles of drinking? How do you prefer it?
Schuler: Portón is a premium-quality white spirit that makes a wonderful replacement in many of your favorite cocktails. I love to have a pisco sour with Portón before lunch and Portón neat with my coffee after eating. That would be a perfect lunch, especially if the cook flambéed something in pisco.
Mix: Beside the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch, what are the best ways to enjoy pisco?
Schuler: After three years traveling the U.S., I’m truly amazed by the truly delicious and creative cocktails created by American bartenders – the innovation here is astounding. I’d be hard-pressed to point out one kind of cocktail because there is so much variety. I’d say Portón’s mixability is amazing and bartenders have responded by creating very diverse offerings with layers and complexity that make really wonderful drinks.
The Capitan is one classic drink, less well-known in the States that is also wonderful.
1 ½ oz Portón
1 ½ oz sweet vermouth
Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?
Schuler: During a hot afternoon, I really love a Chilcano which is just pisco and ginger ale. You can really make this combination shine in a Portonero by adding a dash of lime juice, a slice of fresh ginger and a few drops of Angostura bitters.
2 oz. Portón Pisco
1 tsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. simple syrup
1 slice of fresh ginger
1 dash of Angostura bitters
Top off with ginger ale
Fresh lime wedge
Pour Portón Pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, ginger and bitters into a tall glass with ice. Top off with ginger ale. Stir ingredients and garnish with a lime wedge.