Friday, December 26, 2014

Spirits: Pure Peruvian Piscos

Impromptu pisco tasting, anyone?

Okay, not exactly impromptu. I started this one literal months ago, only to have it wiped out by a server error. Horribly enough, it's taken me this long to rebuild it (thanks to alternating cycles of work and lassitude) but I think it's worth the time.

The most irking thing about the erasure was that I've been meaning to do this post for a long while. I am an avid fan of pisco and I don't think it gets enough recognition in cocktails, so I feel duty-bound to spread the word. For those not in the know, pisco is technically a brandy, produced in high-altitude winemaking regions along the western coast of South America in Chile and Peru. It's produced from grapes in copper-pot stills, giving it a characteristic funk that isn't mellowed by oak aging (as it would be in cognac or most other brandies).

Pisco was first introduced by Spaniard colonists who planted grape vines in the viniculture-friendly mountainous regions of Chile and Peru. Like traditional European brandies, pisco was created as a means of preserving excess or poor-quality wine. It probably would have remained a mostly local spirit if not for some lucky geography and timing: specifically, the California Gold Rush.

Here's the thing: despite their rough-and-tumble image, the prospectors and forty-niners who sought gold in California were a thirsty and surprisingly discerning lot. Champagne and spirits of all kinds were in high demand in the boomtown of San Francisco, but supplying them was challenging. At the time, no overland rail route connected the east and west coasts, so supplies had to be shipped in arduously by covered wagon or much more efficiently by sea. However, the Panama Canal wouldn't be opened for another sixty years, so ships had to take the long way around the tip of South America to reach California. On the way, they'd put in at ports along the western coast of the continent, including one very appropriately called Pisco (situated on a valley and river of the same name). This would have been the perfect opportunity to stock up on some high-margin product for sale in San Francisco.

(This town called Pisco, by the way, is Peru's reasonably-compelling basis for arguing that the term "pisco" should be applied only to Peruvian products as a designation of origin, similar to the AOC/DOC systems that protect European wines. There's long-standing animosity between Chile and Peru over where the spirit originated, among many other topics, and the two countries have some modestly different legal standards for production. Exports from either can be labelled as "pisco" here in the United States.)

Pisco grew further in popularity in San Francisco as the boomtown began stabilizing and a "sporting fraternity" (similar to today's "frat bros", only in bowler hats) started taking hold. What really put it on the map was Pisco Punch, composed of pisco, pineapple syrup, and citrus; this could be had at dozens of saloons and drinking establishments clustered together in the nascent port--in fact some of them served nothing but Pisco Punch. It became briefly faddish in New York, too, but exports quickly dwindled due to economics. Demand for cotton was growing in Europe, and Peruvian wine producers found that they could make more money by switching to cotton production; this became especially true when exports from the American South collapsed during the Civil War. By the 1870s, rail lines were starting to connect San Francisco to the rest of the country, making overland shipping practical; after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the port of Pisco became a marked detour rather than a rest stop for ships bound for California. After dwindling sales for years, Prohibition killed off pisco in the American market except for a couple of holdouts in its old home of San Francisco. This happened with many other spirits, of course, but I consider pisco a particular loss.

The agent of pisco's resurgence was another drink, a derivative of Pisco Punch that remained popular in San Francisco long after supplies had dried up in the rest of the country. The Pisco Sour was my first introduction to the spirit; it combines pisco with simple syrup, lemon juice, and an egg white to great effect. The pineapple's a great element in Pisco Punch, though, so all things being equal I like a mash-up of the two drinks.

Nowadays, the modern mixological revival has brought pisco back to shelves, much of it Peruvian. In addition to the brands tasted here, there's Pisco Porton, Encanto, and a few others; Chilean brands are a bit harder to come by, except for the Capel brand which is near-ubiquitous (at least in my local market). Peruvian pisco is generally drier, being made primarily from the dry Quebranta grape, while the Chilean version is lighter and more floral, characteristics of the Muscat grape. As always, there are exceptions and variations; Peru recognizes an "aromatico" style that's similar to the Chilean version, for example.

Alright, enough background.  Enter the piscos.

Barsol Primero Quebranta

About: This is a very classically-styled pisco, crafted in the Ica region of Peru, which includes the province of Pisco (as well as the famous Nazca Lines). It's a "puro" style, meaning it's crafted entirely from Quebranta grapes, which are relatively dry and non-aromatic. However, the altitude and climate produce a dense juice which results in a flavorful distillate. According to Peruvian law, pisco can only be distilled once, must be rested in steel aging vessels, and can't be diluted before being bottled, so this is about as unadulterated as they come.

Oh, and a fun fact: Barsol is also available in other styles, including an aromatico, and they don't look much different except for a strip of color on the label. I haven't sampled those, so your mileage may vary.

Tasting Notes: Definitely the most subtle pisco here, light and subtly vegetal at first. A dark herbal quality starts building as it sits on your palate, with hints of white pepper, honey, and pear. Very smooth until the finish, where the pot-still funk comes out a bit, but just enough. I like sipping on this one straight, especially if slightly chilled.

Cesar Pisco Especial

About: Oddly enough, I can't find out a ton about this one. Most of my searches only turn up sites that parrot the marketing copy, without much added information about the distiller or product. The best description of its base material I can find is "black grapes" which could mean just about anything. However, the company also sells a Pisco Puro made from Quebranta, and a Pisco Italia made from Muscat, so it's a fair bet that this is an acholado, meaning a blend of multiple grape varieties. Are all of them actually black varietals? Tough to say, nor can we know much else about the production process, which is a shame, because it makes a pretty decent pisco, and one that's reasonably affordable.

Tasting Notes: Starts off with subtle stone fruit (reminding me mostly of a good pluot) and a slightly creamy texture. Mineral and chalky flavors develop on the palate, with a little bit of red fruit. The finish turns floral with a funky backbone, but doesn't linger too long. I like this one in highballs or with a simple mixer; it plays nicely with other ingredients and hides itself smoothly.

Macchu Pisco

About: As compared to the last, this one is a lot easier to figure out. Macchu's website is most helpful! This core product of theirs is primarily made from Quebranta and distilled quite traditionally, to the point of pressing their grapes by foot. Like Barsol, the distillery is located in Ica, and is apparently run by a relatively young producer. More power to her, I say. It's amazing that although these distillers look similar on paper, their products are very different. After trying them side-by-side, I'm inclined to agree with Jason Wilson's point that much of pisco's flavor comes from its terroir, or the contribution of the land where the grapes are grown.

Tasting Notes: This one is the boldest of the bunch, starting off with a heady nose of fresh pear.  It's lightly sweet and creamy up front, until the palate takes off into minerals and copper-still funk.  There are long notes of thyme and sage that carry over into an extended funky, heady finish.  This is an excellent pisco in classic cocktails like the Pisco Punch or Pisco Sour, because it stays assertive even with plenty of citrus (and egg, if that's how you like your Sours).

So: pisco! We continue to see more enter our local market (I've only seen Macchu start cropping up in the last few months) and I'm looking forward to trying interesting acholados and aromaticos. As with cognac, it's impressive to see how differences in growing conditions influence the final spirit. Maybe pisco is a bit less refined than the granddaddy of French brandy, but you also don't have to pay through the nose for it. Win-win!

I'm also running some experiments to see if pisco will respond well to oak aging - using staves at first, maybe running up to barrels if I see initial success. But that'll have to be a future post.

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