A Tale of Two Piscos: Pisco Portón and La Caravedo

Imagine you’ve taken a seat at your friendly neighborhood craft cocktail bar. As you scan the bottles, you see all manner of gins, tequilas, rums, brandies, but only a single bottle labeled “whiskey” – no Scotch, no bourbon, and no rye – just “whiskey.” You opt for a classic Manhattan, made with, of course, whiskey. Your first sip is filled with smoke and brine – it seems it’s a smoky Scotch whiskey, rather than a vanilla forward bourbon or a spicy rye like you’d expect.  Suddenly that classic Manhattan is not such a classic anymore.

You might think it’s ridiculous for a bar to have only one type of “whiskey” when there’s such a broad range of flavor profiles, but something akin to this happens with pisco, the wonderful grape-based brandy from Peru. If a bar has pisco at all, it’s likely to be a single bottle, which is a shame because the range of piscos available have quite a range of flavors. I was vividly reminded of this recently when I sampled two piscos from the same producer side-by-side.

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Vermouth: A Wonky Primer on What It Is and How to Care for It

There’s an old trope about ordering a “dry” martini so devoid of vermouth that the bottle was merely opened in an adjoining room, or that the word “vermouth” was merely whispered nearby. People who think this is clever not only exhibit a huge misunderstanding of what “dry” means, but are also missing out on experiencing a vibrant cocktail the way it’s supposed to taste. Sure, go drink asi watered down, chilled glass of gin, or worse yet, vodka, if that’s your version of a good martini. Vermouth gets a bad rap from people who don’t understand it and why it’s a frequent player in both classic and modern cocktails. With several vermouth reviews coming up on the blog, it’s worth outlining the essentials to set a baseline to build on.

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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.

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A Wonk’s First Trip to Tales of the Cocktail

It’s 11 PM, and after a long day, Mrs. Wonk and I are bone-tired. Yet we’re standing in a large courtyard in New Orleans where despite the late time, it’s still approximately 1000 degrees. On a raised platform some twenty feet above us, a Star Wars storm trooper DJs away. Behind him is an actual, honest-to-goodness World War II-era bomber, suspended in mid-air. Nearby a dystopian Thunderdome scene plays out as sporadic giant belches of flames erupt into the (already way too hot) night. Yet a few hours earlier, I was sipping a magnificent selection of Guyanese rums, pulled straight from the cask, not available anywhere else.  At Tales of the Cocktail, this is just another day as usual.
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Cocktail Obsession: The Starboard (Pisco, Suze, and Apricot)

One of the benefits of getting to know your local bartender is figuring out what they’re passionate about and then letting them run loose with that desire. At a recent pisco throwdown at Damn the Weather in Seattle, I learned that Canon’s Dustin Haarstad is a bit of a Pisco freak. Fast forward a few months and I found myself on a slow evening at Canon with Dustin and Chris Goad at the bar. Canon is a place that has an exceptional menu (Tales of the Cocktail nominatedagain for 2015), but is also a bonanza of great mixology when you let the staff run wild. On this particular night, I remembered that Dustin has an affinity for pisco, so I went dealer’s choice, aka “Shrouded Roulette” in Canon parlance. The result was the Starboard – Pisco, Salers and Apricot Liqueur. I completely dig this drink – it’s light yet complex, and not particularly difficult to make. Dustin graciously provided me with the recipe and the okay to publish it.
Conceptually, the Starboard falls into the way-out Negroni category. Wait, what? None of the classic Negroni ingredients (gin, Campari, vermouth) are in the Starboard. However, it’s commonplace to swap out gin in a Negroni for other base spirits: Use bourbon instead of gin in a Negroni and you have a Boulevardier. Using rum instead of gin yields a Right Hand, a particular favorite of mine, especially when it’s a pungent Jamaican rum.
While a classic Negroni is 1:1:1 with its ingredient ratios, a growing trend in Negroni variations is to bump up the base spirit and reduce the bitter Campari and sweet vermouth components accordingly. This helps keep the more delicate, floral base spirits like pisco from being overwhelmed by the bitter component, e.g. Campari. Pisco, in case you’re wondering, is made in Peru and Chile from grapes, making it technically a brandy. Peruvian and Chilean piscos are quite different when examined with more than a casual glance; in general, Peruvian pisco is better suited for a cocktail like the Starboard.
The Starboard trades the firetruck-red Campari component of a Negroni for a slightly more subtle but still powerful bitter French amaro. Salers, which is strongly flavored with gentiane root and offers a bold greenish-yellow hue. (Truthfully, I prefer it to Campari in my drinks.) While Dustin’s recipe calls for Salers, I successfully reproduced this at home with Suze, another gentiane-based liqueur from France with a similar color and flavor profile.
Lastly, the Starboard cocktail replaces the sweet vermouth with apricot liqueur. You’ll want a sweet liqueur here, not a dry apricot brandy or eau de vie. While apricot liqueur is generally sweeter than a sweet vermouth, the overall sweetness is tempered by the larger ratio of pisco to liqueur. Dustin and I both used Giffard Abricot du Roussillon. (Giffard, also from France, makes an outstanding lineup of liqueurs and syrups. The Giffard orgeat is my go-to almond syrup when mixing Tiki drinks.
The Starboard Cocktail
  • 1.5 oz Peruvian Pisco
  • 0.75 Gentiane aperitif, e.g. Salers or Suze
  • 0.5 Apricot liqueur, e.g. Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express a lemon twist over the top, then drop in.

The Starboard Cocktail, as prepared by Dustin Haarstad at Canon, Seattle.

Checking out Amaro Lucano

 Several years ago, when I was a less-experienced cocktail wonk just starting with my spirits collection, I quickly ran head-first into the confusing category of amaros (aka amari), Italian for “bitter.” Amari are liqueurs created by infusing dozens of herbs and spices in alcohol, then sweetened and diluted to make them consumable neat–assuming you have a moderately adventurous palate. So many strange names– Campari, Ramazzotti, Gran Classico! So many unusual ingredients – gentian, cinchona bark, citrus peels, rhubarb, saffron! Where to begin? I quickly learned that collecting amaris, especially with so many hard-to-find bottles, can be an addicting and expensive habit. It’s a  bit like baseball cards were when I was a kid – once I had a few, I wanted the whole set which makes for a lot of bottles to track down. In this post we’ll take a close look at Amaro Lucano, a mainstream Italian amaro with a long history.

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