Deep insights into spirits, cocktails, and drinking
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.
Peruvian Pisco is a particularly wonderful spirit as it has strict regulations about how it can be made. Those regulations bias the production methods toward creating a very flavorful spirit rather than a soulless, tasteless white spirit like vodka. I’ve written about the requirements and types of Peruvian Pisco in some detail in prior posts, but here’s the quick synopsis of the main requirements:
It can only be made from eight designated grape varietals.
It must be distilled to final proof in copper pot stills and bottled at the same strength it comes off the still. The ABV must be between 38% and 48%.
It can’t be aged in anything that affects flavor, such as wood. However, it must “rest” in non-reactive containers for at least three months prior to bottling.
The primary terminology of pisco you need to know:
Puro: Made only from one type of grape.
Acholodo: Made from multiple types of grapes.
Mosto Verde: Distillation occurs when the grape mash has only partially completed fermenting, so there’s still residual sugar present in the mash prior to distillation. This is more costly, but creates a better tasting pisco.
Pisco has a tradition in Peru going back to the 1600s, and today there are hundreds of producers creating thousands of different varietals for sale in Peru. However, it’s only recently that there’s been an increase in the number of different Pisco varietals imported into the U.S. Brands like Encanto, BarSol, and Macchu Pisco are slowly starting to import a small fraction of the hundreds of expressions available in Peru. The biggest exporter of Peruvian Pisco is Pisco Portón, which imports their namesake pisco, as well as La Caravedo, which are the focus of this post.
The Pisco Portón story starts in 2010, in Texas, of all places. Houstonian William Kallop had recently sold his Peruvian petroleum company and had $900M to play with. In addition to buying JFK’s luxury yacht, the Honey Fitz, Kallop also decided to produce Pisco in Peru, having become a fan of the spirit during his time there. The company name: Pisco Portón – portón being the Spanish word for gate. The first order of business was finding and pairing up with local pisco expert Johnny Schuler, a well-known Peruvian television personality and restaurateur. Next, with Kallop’s deep pockets, they purchased La Caravedo, the oldest remaining Pisco distillery in Peru, dating back to 1684. The portón name references the beautiful original distillery gate. Buying a distillery was a fine starting point, but by itself it wasn’t equipped to handle the huge volume that Pisco Portón planned to export. Thus, he and Schuler built a modern, state-of-the-art distillery nearby. Today, William’s son Brent is the company’s president, and Schuler is the master distiller.
Camper English, in his post on Alcademics, has some great photos of the original and new facilities, including the gravity driven production pipeline and crazy cement resting tanks that mimic the effect of resting in traditional ceramic vessels. Even though Peru’s been on my “must see” list for a while, Camper’s photos made me want to book flights immediately, and I sincerely hope to have the opportunity to visit something soon.
Pisco Portón first started producing pisco and selling locally within Peru. Their lineup includes seven different “puro” styles, each made with one of the allowed grape varietals. Unfortunately, this lineup isn’t available here in the United States, although I was lucky enough to try three of them (Quebranta, Italia, and Moscatel in the Mosto Verde style) at the Peruvian pisco event at Tales of the Cocktail this year. The first product imported to the United States, starting in 2011, was an acholado mosto verde. More recently (mid-2015), the company started importing a second expression, dubbed La Caravedo. I was fortunate to have received both bottles for review purposes, so let’s take a look.
First up is the namesake Pisco Portón. The bottle immediately stands out as something special, unlike any bottle you’ve seen before. Made of frosted glass with a shape evocative of a stone monument, the bottle’s front has a clear “window” through which you see the newly built La Caravedo building and surrounding vineyards. The metallic, tapered stopper has serious heft and the brand’s logo deeply embossed on top. Yes, this is a bottle that begs to be held and admired. The distillery image, conveyed via a double-sided label on the back, can be replaced with an image of your choice should you wish to purchase special editions for gift giving.
The Pisco Portón available here in the U.S. is 86 proof, made with eighteen pounds of grapes in each 750 ml bottle. Per Camper’s post, the 2014 expression is a blend of four mosto verde puros:
Quebranta, a non-aromatic grape, is the most widely used pisco grape and the dominant component here, while the aromatic Torontel is the second highest concentration. Despite the relative small amount of Torontel, approximately 25 percent, the pisco’s nose conveys an intoxicating flower bomb – roses and magnolia flowers, with a fruity undertone. (Perhaps peach?) The floral notes carry through to the initial palate entry without being too cloying. After a mid-palate transition to fruits, the rose petals come back for the finish. There’s very little burn from this expression. It’s a wonderful white spirit that stands up for itself and won’t get lost when mixed in a cocktail.
To test that assertion, I browsed through the brand’s suggested cocktails. The Pisco Negroni caught my eye, but it hewed close to the original Negroni, merely swapping pisco for gin, but doubling the amount of pisco relative to vermouth and Campari. I decided to stray further afield, swapping the traditional sweet red vermouth for a sweet white (“blanc”) vermouth, and switching the bright red, somewhat monotonic Campari for the lighter-toned Suze. To best balance all three components, I settled on the following
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe or old fashioned glass. Express orange peel over glass, drop in.
The newer La Caravedo expression is a puro style, consisting only of Quebranta grapes (eight pounds per 750 ML) and bottled at 80 proof. It arrives in a much simpler, clear cylindrical bottle, adorned with artistic red linework that evokes grape vines The La Caravedo nose is much more subtle than Pisco Portón, not surprising since Quebranta is a non-aromatic grape. I get notes of apricot and subtle strawberry while nosing. Taste-wise, the flavors are stone fruit and melon. While the somewhat delicate flavors make me want to sip this neat and slightly chilled, I fear the flavors may be drowned out if mixed with strongly flavored ingredients. I would really enjoy seeing a higher proof version of this to concentrate the flavors a bit.
It’s no surprise, given the brand’s ownership, that Pisco Portón spends serious money promoting the brand, not only with the premium bottles but also with extensive marketing events around the U.S. Despite that, both expressions are reasonably priced, given the small-batch nature of their production. The original Pisco Portón retails for around $30 for a 750 ml bottle, although they also have 375 ml bottles as well. The La Caravedo retails for around $20.
If you’re at all serious about incorporating piscos into your cocktails, take the time to learn the three basic styles, and read pisco labels closely to understand which style it is. Much as you wouldn’t buy a “whiskey” without knowing what style is, it’s a great opportunity to get away from the “all pisco is pretty much the same” mentality and start factoring in the different flavor profiles into your recipes.