If you wait long enough, everything returns to fashion, a truism in evidence in San Francisco, where Pisco Sours and Pisco Punches once again are being hoisted at bars and restaurants all over town. In fact, industry trend trackers cite nearly 100% growth in pisco imports in 2010.
It’s fitting that pisco, an unaged grape brandy produced in Peru and Chile, now is making another splash in San Francisco: During the late 19th century, it was there that the brandy flourished because of the Pacific shipping trade. Also during that era, Bank Exchange bartender Duncan Nicol was credited with creating the Pisco Punch.
However, Prohibition put an end to whatever place pisco had earned in North American bars, and, despite post-Repeal efforts occurring as recently as the 1980s, little interest evolved. It took the recent cocktail revolution as well as the work of traveling brand ambassadors, such as Diego Loret de Mola of BarSol and Melanie Asher of Macchu Pisco, to bring the clear South American brandy back into vogue.
In Peru, excitement is building — the number of distilleries has almost doubled in five years. Even more Chilean producers, already in the market with Capel, Control and Don Cesar, are making plans to expand to the United States.
A wide range of brands currently is available, with newcomers like Pisco Portón, a mosto verde variety, staking fresh claims. The brand, which launched in April, comes from pisco expert Johnny Schuler, who has served as Peru’s pisco ambassador and written two books about the spirit.
San Francisco now is flush with bars and restaurants featuring the spirit. From La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, which carries about 30 varieties, to Cantina, where co-owner Duggan McDonnell imports his own Campo de Encanto, pisco is returning to the United States with a vengeance.
The city by the bay isn’t the only cocktail hub enamored of pisco. In Los Angeles, Alex Straus, head bartender at Hemingway’s Lounge, includes his Peruvian Sangria on the lounge’s new spring cocktail menu; the drink involves Gran Sierpe Quebranta, Chardonnay, St-Germain, muddled red grapes, simple syrup and lemon juice.
“Pisco is an essential part of the cocktail renaissance,” he affirms. “It is the national spirit of an entire country. I started getting into the rich, South American liquors about three years ago and pisco, more specifically, about two years ago.”
Across the country at La Mar, the American outpost of a Peruvian mini-chain that is adding an operation in New York City, drinks are overseen by Enrique Sanchez. He says pisco sales have increased monthly since the restaurant opened three years ago, even though most customers have no idea what pisco is (see sidebar, “Pisco, by the Rules”).
“Because we list the type of piscos we use in our cocktails, people are always asking what ‘acholado’ or ‘quebranta’ means and how they taste different, so that’s a good way to get the conversation started,” he says.
Sanchez points out that even native Peruvians like himself rarely consider pisco to be a sipping spirit, but mixed drinks, such as the Chinchano (pisco acholado, muddled fresh blackberries, chicha morada reduction, Aperol), offer a great entry point for the curious.
Cocktails made with fresh seasonal fruit, which tend to be in demand at La Mar, match well with the so-called non-aromatic pisco quebranta. Especially popular is the Peruvian Mule, made with pisco quebranta, citrus juice, ginger beer and cranberry bitters.
The restaurant’s best-selling Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch also are made with pisco quebranta, which is considered more structured and capable of providing backbone to a cocktail. Sanchez also works with expressions made from the aromatic varietal albilla, which is used in the Punta Hermosa (pisco albilla, Punt e Mes, Benedictine, Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters) and bambino andino (pisco albilla, Dimmi, créme de violette, lemon bitters).
Yuval Soffer from Comme Ça in Los Angeles
The recent boom in San Francisco and general cocktail culture is an important piece of the emerging pisco puzzle. Many seasonal cocktail menus across the country are including a pisco drink, says BarSol’s de Mola, who has been promoting pisco passionately as a brand and category for nearly 10 years.
“Pisco has been a slow grower but a very secure one, mostly because it has found its way into many exciting cocktails,” he says.
As the pisco business grows, bartenders are seeking a greater number of varieties from various small producers, who are quickly responding to this interest. Some brands have built regional followings: Gran Sierpe is popular in South Florida and Macchu Pisco has fans in the Mid-Atlantic states.
Yuval Soffer, bartender at Comme Ça in Los Angeles, is enthusiastic about presenting customers with new brands, such as Portón.
“I love to introduce pisco to people who don’t know what it is,” he says. “The taste and consistency is unique, and it works well in many different types of cocktails.”
Soffer’s most unusual cocktail is made with Portón: The Lavender Portón Sour mixes pisco, lemon juice, simple syrup, lavender extract and lavender-infused egg white with chocolate bitters for a variation on the classic Pisco Sour that turns heads even in the current unlimited-ingredient mixology scene.
Like other drinks employing pisco, Soffer’s offering helps showcase the spirit’s universal utility, something on which all pisco producers can agree. The key to capitalizing on this growing category is getting bartenders and patrons to embrace this boomerang spirit. NCB
Portón Lavender Pisco Sour
Created by Yuval Soffer and served at Comme Ça in Los Angeles.
2 ounces Pisco Portón
¾ ounce lemon juice
¾ ounce lavender extract*
½ ounce simple syrup
Lavender-infused egg white**
Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters
Dry shake and whip first five ingredients, then shake with ice. Strain into a coup and garnish with chocolate bitters and a lavender leaf.
*To extract lavender: Fill half of a container with dry lavender flowers and cover with boiling water. Let the flowers sit for 15 to 20 minutes until the color turns a very dark purple. Strain the flowers out and add a bit of simple syrup to smooth the bitterness on the finish. Don’t add too much syrup! You don’t want to make this extraction sweet. Different cocktails require different levels of sweetness; experiment with small amounts of the sweet component.
**To infuse the eggs: Seal a few eggs and some potent lavender flowers in a jar. Keep the jar refrigerated for two to four days. Test the eggs every day; the interaction changes the consistency of the egg white, making it harder to work with after an extensive period of time.
Getting Geeky with Pisco
Two recent books will equip barkeeps with knowledge of the origins, distillation and colorful history of this unique spirit, along with tasty cocktail recipes:
• “The Pisco Book” by Gregory Dicum (ClearGrape LLC, April 2011) was inspired by the development of Campo de Encanto, the brand spearheaded by Duggan McDonnell of Cantina in San Francisco. The book covers 400 years of pisco history and includes 50 pisco cocktail recipes.
• “History of Pisco in San Francisco: A Scrapbook of First Hand Accounts” by Guillermo Toro-Lira (Createspace, September 2010) delivers pisco’s tale with photos, old-time ads, newspaper clippings, recipes and oral histories of the spirit’s ascent and impact on the city.
Pisco, by the Rules
Pisco’s origins, proper production and makeup engenders much controversy (mainly between Peruvian and Chilean loyalists) but the rules that govern the making of the South American grape brandy are clear.
Peruvian pisco is made with so-called non-aromatic grapes (usually Quebranta), aromatic grapes (Italia, Torrontes or others from the Muscat family) or a mix (called Acholado). There’s also mosto verde, in which grape juice not fully fermented is used, yielding a sweeter, sometimes softer, style. In Peru, brandies generally are pot-distilled to proof (roughly 40%) and stored before being bottled in nonreactive vessels from which the brandy gets its name: No wood aging is allowed.
Chilean piscos are made from a blend of grapes, primarily Alexandria Muscat and Pink Muscat (other Muscats are used widely, as is Pedro Gimenez — not to be confused with the Sherry grape Pedro Ximenez). They can be column- or pot-distilled or made from a mix of both, meaning they are distilled to a much higher proof and, like most spirits, brought down with the addition of water. Chile categorizes pisco by proof (generally 35% or 40%) primarily for tax purposes and allows aging. Few aged varieties make it to the United States, and rules governing how aged varieties are classified (Reserva, Especial, etc.) are based on proof and the amount of time spent in wood.
Pisco Drinks to Try
The Prince & The Pisco
Created by Chris Ventura, Bar Manager for Serpentine in San Francisco.
1½ ounces Campo de Encanto Pisco
1 ounce King’s Ginger
¼ ounce Velvet Falernum
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
¾ ounce lemon
Shaken and served up with a lemon twist.
Created by Brett Story of Yelapa Playa
Mexicana in Houston.
2 ounces Pisco Portón
1 ounce Patrón Citrónge Liqueur
½ ounce simple syrup
6-8 mint leaves
3 orange slices
3 lime slices
In a Boston shaker, muddle the mint leaves, limes and orange slices. Pour in the Pisco Portón, Patrón Citrónge Liqueur and simple syrup. Fill with ice and shake vigorously. Pour into a Collins glass and top with soda. Garnish with an orange and lime wedge.
Courtesy of Hemingway’s Lounge in Los Angeles.
1½ ounces Gran Sierpe Pisco
½ ounce St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
½ ounce simple syrup
¾ ounce lemon juice
1 ounce Chardonnay
7 muddled grapes
Shake and strain over ice. Garnish with three grapes.
For more pisco recipes click here.