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.
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.
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’sDustin 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.
Pisco is one of those spirits with a steady buzz among spirit wonks like myself, but with little visibility by the general drinking public beyond the occasional Pisco Sour. I’ve been a fan of pisco for years and enjoy the hell out of a good pisco punch (pisco, pineapple syrup and lemon juice). However, a recent event at Damn the Weather in Seattle was a revelation to me – I honestly had no idea of the diversity across the many styles and blends of pisco available. This post is a brief introduction to pisco and some highlights of what the event covered. I plan to do more posts in the future that drill in deeper.
Peruvian Pisco at Damn the weather
Here are the basics: Pisco’s base is grapes – fermented and then distilled. Distilled spirits that start with fermented grapes are commonly known as brandy. However, there are number of factors that make pisco different than your garden variety $9 bottle of Christian Brothers brandy. But before we get into why it’s different, let’s first establish that both Peru and Chile make a product known as pisco. It’s generally accepted in the spirits community that Peruvian pisco conforms to tighter standards on what’s allowed, and in general, Peruvian pisco is considered higher quality. I find most Peruvian pisco to be a very clean, aromatic spirit, with a strong fruit and floral essences. It really is a joy to just sip neat.
To be a Peruvian pisco, the grapes must be one of eight different allowed varieties. The fermented juice from these grapes can only be distilled once, to an alcohol percentage between 38 and 48 percent. The distillation must occur in copper pot stills rather than in a column still. This single distillation is a fairly significant differentiator. Most pot-stilled spirits, including Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y, are distilled two or three times. The benefit of single distillation to a relatively low proof (as opposed to roughly 70 percent ABV where most spirits finish) is that more of the original flavors of the fermented grapes make it into the final product. After distillation, the distillate must rest for a minimum of three months in glass, stainless steel or other material that doesn’t impart flavors to the distillate.
At the event, a cornucopia of pisco bottles were out on display, a vast majority I’d never seen or heard of before. Adam L. Weintraub, one of the event presenters mentioned that a number of them were “suitcase pisco,” meaning he’d brought them to the US in his own luggage, since they aren’t yet imported here. I figured they were just for us to look at, so I was utterly surprised when we were given free reign near the end of the event to sample any of the dozens of bottles on the bar. Much like mezcal aficionados have discovered hundreds of artisanal distillers in Mexico, pisco also has hundreds of small distillers making amazing pisco with a wide range of flavor profiles.
Jay Kuehner of Damn the Weather
The event started with Jay Kuehner, bartender at Damn the Weather, and a big local pisco advocate, taking the first twenty minutes or so to share the background of pisco. Next up was Fernando Gonzales Lattini, maker of Piscología. He spoke in detail about the production of his particular pisco. Last up with Adam L. Weintraub, a former Seattle native who married a Peruvian woman and moved to Peru. He now owns the Museo Del Pisco, a bar/restaurant in Cusco, Peru that focuses exclusively on pisco, with a collection numbering in the hundreds. Adam talked about his own personal experience with pisco, as well as educating people about pisco at his restaurant.
Jay Kuehner and Fernando Gonzales Lattini
After the main presentation, there was a lively discussion about the use of pisco for mixing in cocktails. One particular interesting takeaway was that many of the same flavor combinations that work well with agave spirits (tequila, mezcal) also tend to work well with pisco. Pisco also tends to work well with other grape-based spirits such as vermouth. I was excited to learn that two of my favorite Seattle bartenders, Jay, and Dustin Haarstad from Canon, are pisco freaks, a fact heretofore unknown to me – I fully intend to challenge them to make me all sorts of interesting pisco drinks. There was also a healthy back and forth about the availability of more pisco brands in the Washington state market and how to improve the situation.
Adam L. Weintraub
Some other key takeaways, in no particular order:
There are four main styles of pisco: Puro (single grape), Aromaticas (made from muscat derived grapes), Mosto Verde (distilled from partially fermented “must,” which contains stems, peels, etc.), and Acholado (a blend of several grape varieties).
Peruvian pisco must be clear. It cannot be barrel-aged and still legally be pisco.
In Peru, pisco is often infused with fruit or coffee, but then isn’t legally pisco.
Pisco is often used in Peruvian cooking.
A typical batch size for distilling pisco is 500 to 1000 liters.
It takes seven liters of fermented grape “wine” to make one liter of pisco.
By time the prepared presentations ended, I was ready to book a trip to Peru ASAP. I’ve always had an interest in the country, starting with a fifth grade project involving a giant cookie dough map of the country made I made. The prospect of visiting Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca site, was already enough to put Peru on my radar, but now my intense desire to tour pisco distilleries has bumped a Peruvian expedition way up on my list of travel plans.
After the tastings, the event ended with a round of cocktails, made to order. We were able to select from two different pisco-based recipes – I selected an El Capitan, which is roughly akin to a Manhattan but with the whiskey replaced by pisco, and a closer ratio of base spirit to vermouth. There were several other bloggers and journalist present and I enjoyed chatting with them over great pisco cocktails. All in all, a very well executed event, and a model for what other spirit events should aspire to!