Pisco Evolution

Note: This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, February 2014.

While the firts Saturday of February is officially Peru’s Pisco Sour day, many of the most recent offerings to emerge deserve to be poured straight up. Spurred by new US regulations that officially recognize pisco as its own category of spirit, as well as the popularity of pre-Prohibition cocktails that call for it. Pisco has gained new-found respect.

On the shelves you’ll find mostly Peruvian pisco, and less commonly, Chilean versions. Both are essentially brandies, traditionally distilled from floral grape varieties like muscat alongside earthier ones, like palomino negro, which contribute a fullness and viscosity. Now, an increasing number of piscos focus on a single grape variety, some of which are made with the Mosto Verde technique in which the base wine is only partially fermented, yielding a far more floral and fragrant spirit. Chilean pisco can also be aged in wood casks, unlike Peruvian pisco, adding another dimension to the flavors. Here are some of the most noteworthy new entries in the field.

BarSol Pisco

One of the first of the new wave of quality brands to show up from Peru back in 2005,BarSol has since expanded its portfolio to include eight brandies. The most interesting are the two Italia varieties: Selecto is distilled from grape must while the Mosto Verde is distilled from partially fermented must. It’s a yin-yang contrast, the Mosto Verde light and floral, a delicate pisco to enjoy neat; the Selecto, on the other hand, is spicy with nutmeg and clove, the deep sugar cane flavors suited to a Pisco Sour.

Imported by Anchor Distilling Co., San Francisco, Ca; Selecto Italia Pisco, 40% abv, $34; Mosto Verde Italia Pisco, 41% abv, $39

La Diablada Pisco

This acholado(blended) pisco made by Lizzie and Melanie Asher, Peruvian sisters living in the US, is wonderfully layered and balanced. With the help of their 90-year-old grandmother in blending, and a co-op of women farmers supplying grapes, they’ve createda pisco worthy of its name: La Diablada is a South American dance in which a cast of devils and angels battle it out. Each of the varieties in the blend ( quebranta, torontel, moscatel and italia) take their turn on the dance floor, a little plum,some blossom scents, then blueberries, herbs and briny flavors weaving together in a wonderful layered performance.

Imported by Macchu Pisco, Bethesdam MD; 40% abv, $40

Pisco Porton

Pisco Porton comes from distiller Johnny Schuler, known for his Peruvian-focused cooking and cocktail shows. Using a blend of quebranta, torontel and albilla grapes only partially fermented before distillation, he’s made a delicate pisco with floral notes that play around a core of briny olive, red apple, and raspberry flavors. While it starts off feeling sweet, it ends bone dry, in part an effect of the higher alcohol content, leaving flower petals in its wake.

Imported by Pisco Porton, Manhasset, NY; 43% abv, $39

Kappa Pisco

Unlike Peruvian pisco, which may be distilled only once and must be aged in neutral glass, metal or plastic containers. Chilean pisco must be distilled twice and can be aged in wood. The Marnier- Lapostolle family of Grand Marnier fame adds another variable to their Chilean pisco, relying on an unconventional blend of the rose and Alexandria clones of muscat. The result, called Kappa, is entirely unlike any Peruvian pisco, light and lifted with a mineral sparkle in its raspberry fruit, floral and herbal with violet, juniper and bay. Fascinating stuff.

Imported by Marnier-Lapostolle, NY; 42.5% abv, $34

Campo de Encanto Pisco

This isn’t actually the first time pisco has been popular Stateside: During the Gold Rush, pisco was the drink of San Francisco. In an effort to revive local interest, San Francisco bartender Duggan McDonnell and sommelier Walter Moore worked together to develop their own pisco, Campo de Encanto. Launched in 2010, its now available nationally. Grand & Noble is their flagship bottling, a blend of the earthy quebranta and mollar varieties blended with the more floral torontel, moscatel and italia, redolent of plums, almonds and thyme, with faint honeysuckle sweetness. For their Single Vineyard series, they feature single-variety piscos: Quebranta shows of the lush, heady side of the variety, with plenty of pistachio, fig and nougat flavor; the Moscatel, in contrast, is so light it feels nearly effervescent, with violet, rose and hibiscus notes grounded by herbal flavors. Where the Grand & Noble makes a great pisco sour, sip the Single Vineyards straight.

Imported by Sazerac, New Orleans, LA; Grand & Noble Pisco, $37; Single Vineyard Quebranta Pisco, $44; Single Vineyard Moscatel Pisco, $44; all are 40.5% abv.

Marian Farms California- Style Pisco

While the Chileans and Peruvians argue about the right way to make Pisco, over in the California Central Valley, a bio dynamic farm is riffing on the spirit using muscat and thompson seedless grapes.Distilled in a small copper pot still, it’s the cleanest of all the piscos I’ve tasted, with dark fruit aromas, and a slightly sweet violet flavor. It’s terrifically versatile, sippable on its own and harmonious in a Pisco Sour.

Marian Farms, Fresno, CA; 40% abv, $35

Negronis, FedExed

Stocking a bar from scratch takes some effort. Meredith Lantz and Joe Barwin of Bitters + Bottles would like to help. The new liquor store in South San Francisco is filled with all the items your inner bartender could want at competitive prices, such as a Gold Trident Bar Spoon ($15) or a Chef’n Lemon Juicer ($22).The spirits section runs from the basic to the eccentric with highlights including Tempus Fugit’s Fernet Angelico ($56.50), Old World Spirits’ Rusty Blade Gin ($54.50) and for the rare (and not to mention wealthy) whiskey lover there’s the Michter’s 20 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon ($438). The shop isn’t exactly centrally located, so they’ve created a monthly subscription plan. Their monthly cocktail shipment includes base spirits, five classic recipes, nonperishable mixers and garnishes, with an optional initial shipment of standard bar tools. The first month brings Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Carpano Antica, two types bitters, a bottle of real Maraschino cherries and even a quality ginger ale for a Horse’s Neck (good luck getting that perfect lemon peel spiral to stay in place). The next month moves to gin, then to brandy. Right now they’re only shipping to California and New York, but plans for expansion are in the works. – Erik Tennyson

Bitters + Bottles, 240 Grand Ave., South San Francisco, bittersandbottles.com

New York’s Wine Bootcamp

Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group is partnering with the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) to create a public version of its internal staff wine training program. The ten-week wine course, “Understanding Wine,” will start in March at the Institute’s campus on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Master Sommelier and USHG wine director John Rogan will lead the class. – L.S $1,750 for ten classes; ice.edu

Homemade Amphorae

The ancient practice of making wine in amphorae has been gaining traction over the last decade. Recently, UNESCO placed the Georgian qvevri- based winemaking technique on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Closer to home, Oregon ceramicist, vigneron and winemaker Andrew Beckham started throwing his own amphorae after reading about Elisabetta Foradori, who uses the terra cotta containers for some of her white wines from Trentino. Beckham experimented with the clay composition, eliminating the typical barium (not food safe) and incorporating a higher percentage of grog (firesand), sourced from Sacramento, California. He steered clear of lining his vessels with beeswax (its costly and creates sanitation challenges) and instead focused on finding a firing temperature that would result in a vessel both porous and leak-free. Each amphora is thrown by hand, a process that takes about 20 hours on a pottery wheel complete with scaffolding; that’s followed by five to six weeks for drying and close to 40 hours of firing. While Beckham has a long way to go before he can produce the vessels commercially, he’s experimenting with the 40 – and 60-gallon containers, using them for pinot noir and skin-fermented pinot gris from his own vineyards. – C.G.

Duggan McDonell of Cantina and his pisco cocktail, Vice & Virtue

Rich and round, yet bright and clear, pisco offers much to the inspired mixologist. Dugan McDonnell relies on it often at Cantina, mixing it into a drink he calls Vice & Virtue. The smoky Scotch adds a subtle counter-point to pisco’s chocolate and pepper notes, while the Chartreuse adds herbal depth. To make it, you’ll need:

2 ounces pisco
1/2 ounce Islay Scotch
1/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse
1/4 ounce agave nectar
2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon peel, for garnish

Stir and strain into a small old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.