"Pisco is a Peruvian spirit distilled from grapes. It makes wonderful drinks; it's something new. What does it taste like? It tastes like heaven."
That's Johnny Schuler, self-appointed pisco ambassador, and his pitch for what's becoming a must-have spirit for serious bartenders and mixologists.
Never heard of pisco? Don't worry, only cocktail nerds and recent tourists to Machu Picchu have. For the rest, pisco is still an unknown alcohol, a clear bottle of which may sit near the tequila shelf at your local package store.
Pisco's obscurity is looking to be reversed by producer-importers like Schuler, who's currently launching Pisco Portón for the U.S. market with $20 million backing, and Stamford-based Diego Loret de Mola, producer of Barsol Pisco. The spirit's chances are buoyed by surging popularity in Peru's cuisine (see: ceviche and pollo a la brasa joints) and a high-end cocktail culture that values pre-Prohibition drinks and ingredients like egg whites (see: San Francisco-born Pisco Punch and the pisco sour).
Pisco love arrives
I admit I'm not neutral on pisco's U.S. entrance. I love pisco. I drank a lot of it during a two-year stay in Peru, mostly straight or in chilcanos, a ginger ale-pisco highball. I made it a habit to greet visitors at the airport with a pisco toast.
It's easy to fall for pisco for the simplicity of its production and the complexity of its varieties. Pisco has one ingredient, grapes, and the process, codified by Peruvian law, is simple: distill fermented grape juice one time to an 80-proof alcohol, and let sit for several months.
But choosing between piscos then gets interesting. The eight varieties of pisco grapes range in flavors and aromas from the flowery Torontel to the chocolaty Negra Criolla. The Quebranta grape is the most produced and hailed by cocktail makers for its versatility and rounded flavor. Add in the blended varieties, called acholados, the premium Mosto Verde piscos, and the fact that pisco has been produced in Peru since the 17th century, and you have a lot of fodder for a wanna-be connoisseur.
When I returned from Peru, it was clear that pisco had also arrived. Summer cocktail recipes with pisco were popping up and reviews appeared in The New York Times and Slate. Restaurants like Pisco Latin Lounge in San Francisco and Pio Pio in Manhattan shake extravagant pisco cocktails. (Pio's "Grape & Grain" is Pisco Portón, Bison Grass Vodka, seasonal grapes, fresh lime and gomme syrup). And Pisco Portón's million-dollar marketing campaign landed bottles of Portón in a Shakira music video.
Around Hartford, Whole Foods in West Hartford sells a pisco sour gelato, and recently Max Downtown's featured Pisco Punch on their cocktail board. What about other Connecticut bars?
"I've been in the area for eight years, and it's just being seen now," said Sergio Meses, who can prepare pisco sours at Barcelona in WestHartford.
Anthony DeSerio put pisco sour on his menu at Swill inBranford. "It's an up-and-coming trend," he says. "People are looking south more for tastes and cuisine."
You'll find pisco in places with savvy bartenders, like New Haven's Crown 116, or restaurants with pan-Latino cuisine, like Pacifico in New Haven.
Mike Giordani of Treva in West Hartford keeps a bottle of Barsol Pisco and says he offers pisco sours to "adventurous" regulars. "We do a few drinks with egg white foam so bringing in a pisco sour was pretty easy," he said.
The egg whites make the drink wonderfully frothy, while fresh lime juice give the pisco sour its signature tartness. But fear of egg whites could be a hangup for the success of pisco sours.
"You need to shake it and you have egg white," says Diego Loret de Mola of Barsol. "I don't think the average American is ready for that."
Pisco promoters are betting on the chilcano as a popular entry point to pisco. "Pisco, ginger ale, squeeze of lime, drop of bitters — it doesn't get any simpler than that," said Loret de Mola. "It's not that different from a rum and coke, and that's something that people can make at home."
Battle of the white spirits
But will we hear "Portón and Polar" ordered across bars five years from now? The trend is upward. Pisco exports to the U.S. nearly doubled last year, according to consultancy Veritrade, reports The New York Times. The entrance of Portón brings pisco to the U.S. like never before: the 2010 production of 400,000 liters is equal to the entire volume of pisco exported in 2010. Schuler says they plan to produce one million liters by 2013.
But bartenders and spirit-industry insiders think pisco's mainstream success is a long shot.
"There's too much stuff on the market right now for [pisco] to become big," says Brian Mitchell, who distributes Barsol to about 200 retailers in Connecticut at World Wide Wines. "There's so many specialty spirits, it will be really challenging for anything new to do well."
Schuler admits the challenge. "Pisco is a newcomer in this game called the white spirits. Vodka, gin, rum and tequila are the big players," he said in a phone call from Lima. "We are the new kids in town."
"In America, we have conquered the hearts of the educated cocktail consumers in the major cities," Loret de Mola says. "You will see it in New York, Miami, San Francisco. For it to become mainstream, like margarita sold in TGIF — that remains to be seen."
Pair it with ceviche
The future of pisco in the U.S. might depend on how ubiquitous Peruvian cuisine becomes. Compare it with sushi and sake. Sushi was exotic a few decades back, and now it's in every mall food court. If you have eaten sushi, you've probably heard of sake.
Loret de Mola agrees: "If we start seeing more ceviches, more Peruvian restaurants opening, pisco has a chance."
Peruvian food and pisco will get a boost this fall when Peruvian restaurateur Gastón Acurio, a celebrity back in Lima, opens La Mar Cebichería in New York City. The restaurant has been hugely successful in San Francisco, open since 2008.
Meanwhile, Johnny Schuler and a small cadre of mixologists and enthusiasts will try to get you to drink pisco. "Pisco has all the requisites needed to succeed," Schuler says. "And it's got a natural story behind it."