On the continued trend of every cocktail and spirit having its own day, Saturday marks Pisco Sour Day. Celebrated annually the first Saturday of February this day celebrates the Peruvian spirit Pisco, shaken or blended with lime, simple syrup and a bit of egg white to create the ideal refreshment on a hot summer day (it is summer in Peru.) Earlier this week Johnny Schuler, a.k.a. Mr. Pisco, visited Dallas to make make sure we are ready to celebrate the occasion. I had a chance to visit with Schuler at Bolsa to learn more about pisco and why he has spent the last 35 years making it the fifth white spirit of the world, “more flavorful than vodka, not as strong as tequila.”
A native Peruvian, Schuler wasn’t always a lover of pisco, preferring scotch or bourbon to the spirit of his homeland made from 8 different varietals of wine grapes. A restaurateur since a young age he had never had the wow experience with pisco, as he often just tried what was poured out of a bartenders well. In 1977 he was then asked to fill in as a last minute replacement judge for a pisco competition and began trying all types from the very small production of maybe 200 or 300 bottles per year to the large production styles. After a few sips of premium pisco his eyes opened, the wow moment happened, and a new passion was born as he smelled the aromas of chocolate, vanilla, white pepper, tropical fruit like banana and mango. He realized pisco was unlike any other spirit, made exclusively from wine grapes, with a very high alcohol content (some as high as 99% proof), and a wide variety of flavors. And, like wine, each and every bottle was different as the terroir effects these grapes just like it would in any vineyard.
After taking the time to learn everything he could about the spirit, he was determined to help others see, taste and experience why pisco was so special. Thus he adopted this role of “Mr. Pisco,” or ambassador for the spirit, traveling around Peru and the world, lecturing on the product, judging competitions, helping producers improve their product, teaching about its heritage and its importance to the Peruvian culture, but never really wanting to make it himself always just helping others. Five years ago this pro bono work earned him the Medal of Honor from the Peruvian Congress for both his work on educating the world about pisco, and upholding Peruvian culture and tradition.
He had never wanted to get into the pisco making business, however a Texan changed his mind, as many Texans do when we set our minds to something. A Houstonian oil-man had lived in Peru for many years and when returning home to Texas found he could not find a Pisco in the United States to fit his taste. Bill Kallop approached Schuler about making an ultra premium pisco for the U.S. market, and gave him the one thing Johnny required – free reign to make the product he wanted to. Last March the first bottles of Pisco Portón rolled out of the circa 1684 distillery in Ica, Peru. Portón is “gate” in Spanish, as pisco is the gate to happiness, pleasure and a new world; it is also representative of the gate at the opening of their distillery at Hacienda La Caravedo, the oldest distillery in the Americas.
Schuler has a hand in every portion of the business, as Master Distiller he oversees each step from riding through the vineyards they own to taste the grapes, negotiating with additional vineyard owners on the purchase of grapes, working harvest, watching over the fermentation and distillation, aging, blending and bottling. Though he has help, the end result is completely a product of his vision and taste.
Pisco Portón blends Quebranta, Albilla and Torontel grapes which are distilled using the mosto verde, or “green must” method, which is also the highest quality pisco according to Schuler. Mosto verde is an extremely expensive process because not all of the grape sugars are allowed to ferment into alcohol and thus there is less pisco in each batch, so more grapes are required for each bottle. It takes about fifteen pounds of grapes to produce one bottle of Portón.
Though often used as the spirit in cocktails, sipping the Portón neat allows the rich flavors of the spirit to shine, releasing aromas of wild flowers, chocolate, white pepper, banana and white peach. Though high in alcohol it is surprisingly smooth without the burn some high alcohol spirits can have. We tried it with a few cocktails as well including a mystery basket competition cocktail the staff at Bolsa had created with banana pudding (the basket ingredient), coconut milk and pisco – surprisingly good, as well as a traditional pisco sour.
When I asked Schuler what is the best way to enjoy pisco, he graciously noted that the best way to enjoy pisco is to sip it with friends. Pisco brings people together through conversation, camaraderie and friendship. After visiting with him and sipping his pisco I couldn’t agree more.
Pisco Portón is available at Specs.