Chances are if you’ve tasted pisco, it was as an ingredient in a cocktail. Most likely a Pisco Sour, Peru’s national cocktail and one of my favorites.
But until recently, I’d never thought of drinking pisco straight. What changed my mind was Johnny Schuler, master distiller at Pisco Portón.
Garrulous, worldly and blessed with a richly accented basso voice that could charm the pants off a not insignificant number of ladies, Johnny is the real Most Interesting Man in the World.
I met Schuler in Tampa, where he was promoting his pisco. After three decades as his country’s semi-official pisco ambassador, he launched his own brand several years ago. He uncorked a bottle he’d brought from his distillery (oldest in the Americas) in Ica, Peru.
Before we even poured glasses, Schuler dispelled a few fallacies. Most important of these, that pisco is the South American version of grappa, Italian hooch made by distilling what’s left over from winemaking (skins, pulp, seeds, stems).Pisco, as with fine spirits such as Cognac, is a brandy made by distilling wine.
“It’s not a byproduct,” he says. “It is the main product.”
Unlike Cognac, pisco is not aged. Meaning there’s no hiding imperfections with oak. Only the highest quality grapes will produce truly great pisco.
Of three official categories of pisco, Pisco Portón is a mosto verde, meaning that it’s made from grapes that don’t ferment completely, leaving more sugar. The result is a pisco that’s smoother, more complex, and definitely good for drinking straight.
Which is good, since a bottle of Pisco Portón runs $40.
“True pisco is not for shooting,” Schuler says. “It’s made for enjoying, for friendship, for enjoying over many hours together.”
As with Cognac or whisky, tasting pisco has its quirks and imperatives.
Hold the glass by the foot, don’t cup it with your paws like it’s a mug of hot cocoa. Sniff gently and from an inch or so away.
Dip – don’t jam – your nose in the glass. Swirl it. Sniff again.
What are you smelling? Is it hay? Straw? Swirl again and sniff.
Does it reveal something new? Hints of chocolate? Bananas? Mango?
With the first sip, I’m hooked. By the third, I’m seriously considering taking Schuler up on his invitation to visit the distillery. It’s no wonder Pisco Portón is so decorated with awards.
While Schuler prefers his premium pisco straight, he’s no snob. He loves a good Pisco Sour and relishes trying new pisco cocktails.
Meanwhile, he’s already tinkering with new products, and plans to begin selling a 100-proof pisco dubbed “Out of Norm.”
“You would think that would knock the daylights out of you, but it is so smooth,” he says.
Of course, even the next batch of Pisco Portón will likely hold surprises. Unlike most spirits makers, who strive to produce hooch that tastes exactly the same every year, Schuler embraces a pisco that will taste subtly different every year. “The sun, wind, cold, rain, changes every year. So will our pisco,” he says. “What won’t change is that I will bottle the very best pisco every year. … The beauty of Portón lies in that it is an adventure. I’m going to play with your senses and mine.”
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