Grape Escape: Peru’s Pisco Varietals at Tales of the Cocktail 2015

Pisco is a spirit that’s taken me a while to wrap my head around. A clear, grape-based spirt from South America, I’ve been enchanted by it since my first sip, and later making my first pisco punch at home. But once you seek to move beyond the Pisco Sour, its many styles and terminology are daunting. In exchange for gaining this awareness, you’ll discover a world-class spirit that’s a joy both neat and in cocktails, and yet is a bargain when compared to tequila, cachaça, brandy, and so on.

Much like bourbon has specific rules (at least 51% corn, aged in new American oak barrels, etc.), the production of Peruvian Pisco also has very specific regulations, which make it equally worthy of attention as French Cognac (also a grape-based brandy) or single-malt Scotch. I have explicitly specified “Peruvian” pisco here because both Chile and Peru claim it as their own and have intense national rivalries about who makes the “real” Pisco. From an outsider’s perspective, the Peruvian regulations are more stringent and, based on price, are more highly valued. For our purposes here, “pisco” means Peruvian Pisco.

Juan Coronado, Brother Cleve, Johnny Schuler, Melanie Asher

While I’ve written about it previously, my Wonk-level understanding of Peruvian pisco didn’t snap into place until I attended the “Grape Escapes: Peru’s Pisco Varietals” session at Tales of the Cocktail. Moderated by seminal mixologist and author Tony Abou-Ganim, the panel of Pisco company representatives, including Melanie Asher and Brother Cleve of Macchu Pisco, as well as Johnny Schuler of Pisco Porton and Juan Coronado of the Pour Group–spun a compelling tale about Peru itself, grape harvesting, and artisanal production methods as we wound through a combined vertical and horizontal tasting.

Melanie and Johnny, both master distillers for their respective companies, led we attendees through the technical aspects of pisco, bring excellent clarity to concepts that had previously eluded me. Johnny has a particularly assured, soothing voice and passionate way of speaking about Pisco – no surprise once you know he hosted a long running television show about Pisco in Peru. Brother Cleve, Juan, and Tony each added to the overall discussion with their perspectives on using pisco in cocktails.

The thing that makes pisco exciting for spirits connoisseurs is how little transformation occurs from grape to glass.  Unlike most fine spirits that are aged in wood–which converts their light, fruity esters into more complex esters and aldehydes with notes of honey, spices and vanilla–true pisco isn’t barrel-aged; in the finished product, you taste the same flavor components that were in the original mash prior to distillation. And while Pisco can’t be aged in wood, it typically “rests” in glass or other non-reactive containers before bottling. Nonetheless, you won’t see piscos competing on how “old” they are, i.e. time spent in a barrel. Pisco is fresh, light and inviting – the nose is a burst of fruit and floral notes – what you’d expect, given that it starts as essentially wine.  While sometimes referred to as a brandy, a closer connection is grappa or eau de vie, as brandy carries an aged-in-wood connotation.

In addition, pisco must be distilled in copper pot stills (no columns allowed), and only to bottling strength. That is, it’s not distilled to a much higher alcohol content than it’s eventually bottled at, meaning that the distiller has to be especially conservative when to start and stop collection. At the Tales session, a panelist mentioned that some 50 percent of the total distillation run is “lost” to heads and tails–the parts that don’t make into your bottle. Distilling to a higher proof removes unpleasant tasting impurities, but also removes more desirable flavors. Pisco distillers don’t have the luxury of distilling to 140 proof or higher to remove more foul tasting impurities, like whiskey, rum and tequila distillers can.   Pisco distillers need to get it right on the first pass, and they do!

The Grape Escape panel stressed that Peruvian Pisco isn’t a category that you should have a bottle of in your bar. Much like wine varietals, pisco styles vary widely in flavor –so, of course, you should really have multiple options at your disposal.  (No surprise, given that the session was sponsored by the Trade Commission of Peru.)  Snark aside, having tasted multiple expressions from Machhu Pisco and Pisco Porton at the session, I agree with the sentiment. Any decent restaurant wouldn’t limit its wine list to a single wine, and any bar that fancies itself a leader in innovative cocktails should have more than one token bottle of pisco.

The wine analogy is particular apt when understanding the spirit itself – both wine and pisco are grape-based, after all. It’s well known that some wines are made from a single type of grape, while others wines are blends. Pisco regulations allow only eight grape varietals – Quebranta is the big daddy, which you see most frequently:

  • Quebranta
  • Italia
  • Negra Criolla
  • Torontel
  • Mollar
  • Moscatel
  • Uvina
  • Albilla
Non-aromatic pisco grapes
Aromatic pisco grapes

Piscos made from a single type of grape are called Puro, meaning “pure.” Eight types of grapes mean eight different Puros are possible, such as Puro Quebranta, Puro Italia, and so on. In contrast, Acholado pisco is comprised of more than one grape, in any combination, meaning a nearly infinite number of possible acholados varieties. The regulations make also make a distinction between aromatic and non-aromatic styles of the above grapes, but I won’t dwell on it here, to keep things approachable.

Beyond the single grape/blend distinction, one more critical term for your pisco journey is Mosto Verde (“green must”).  All pisco naturally ferments using airborne yeast – no “distillers yeast” is added, as with most other types of spirits. In puro or acholado piscos, the distiller waits until the fermentation stops of its own accord, with all the fermentable sugar in the grape juice converted to alcohol. However, if distillation occurs before fermentation has completed, the mash is a blend of already converted alcohols and as-yet unconverted-grape juice. While some might call the distiller who does this impatient, the resulting Mosto Verdepisco is usually sweeter and more pleasant, and typically priced higher as it takes far more grapes to make the same quantity of mosto verde pisco as an acholadoor puro. The mosto verde designation is also additive to the puro/acholado style, rather than a replacement.  That is, a mosto verde pisco is actually either a puro mosto verde or an acholado mosto verde.

At the Tales tasting, we sampled six varieties of pisco:

  • Puro Quebranta (Macchu Pisco)
  • Puro Italia (La Diablada)
  • Puro Moscatel (La Diablada)
  • Mosto Verde Quebranta (Pisco Porton)
  • Mosto Verde Italia (Pisco Porton)
  • Mosto Verde Moscatel (Pisco Porton)

 

The particular set we tasted were carefully selected – not only did we try three different grape varieties in puro form, we also tasted the same three varieties in their mosto verde form. The mosto verde samples were from Pisco Porton; while sold in Peru, they aren’t yet available in the U.S. The Pisco Porton that is available here is an acholado mosto verde, a blend of four different grapes.  Tasting all six piscos side by side, I found noticeable differences in the nose and taste, giving solid backing to the assertion that having just one style of pisco isn’t enough.
Juan Coronado, Brother Cleve, Johnny Schuler, Melanie Asher

Although there are roughly 480 registered pisco distilleries in Peru, not all of them export their product. Pisco brands don’t yet have the name recognition in the U.S. as, say, Tequilas do. Brands I come across repeatedly are Barsol, Campo de Encanto, Macchu Pisco, and Pisco Portón. I plan to do more in-depth reviews for some of these in the near future.

The panel at Tales drilled home that while the Pisco Sour is a beloved classic, other classic pisco cocktails with their own long histories are worth promoting to raise pisco awareness. The Capitan, essentially a pisco Manhattan, speaks to me as it doesn’t obscure much of the delicate flavors in a haze of citrus and sugar.

Capitan
  • 1.5 oz Pisco
  • 1.5 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir in a mixing glass with ice, strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with a cherry.

The recipes I found differ widely in the suggested ratios of pisco to vermouth. If you don’t mind a bit more kick, a 2:1 ratio of pisco to vermouth might be more to your liking.

When I’m in an improvisational mood when making drinks, a trick I often summon is switching the base spirit of an established recipe for something different. Pisco works well for this. I find that swapping blanco tequila for pisco in recipes usually leads to pleasing results, such as a pisco-based margarita. Pisco can even stand in for gin, as in a pisco Negroni. And don’t forget the possibility of making your own pisco-based infusions – in Peru they’re called macerados; in addition to fruits, coffee beans are common in pisco infusions. With a typical price around $30 for highly regarded expressions, there’s no reason you shouldn’t buy a few different brands and styles and start your own pisco journey.

 

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