Pisco, the clear grape spirit of South America, is emerging from the mist of history and bringing rich freshness to cocktails. In New York and other cities, liquor stores and bars that carried no pisco a few years ago have several now and are adding more, making it the fastest-growing spirit in the country, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
The new piscos are a far cry from the famously rustic, hangover-inducing stuff that was previously available. Top-shelf piscos are being made for Peruvian connoisseurs, and these newer entries are feeding the growing export market, often with an assist from U.S. expertise, passion and money.
“Pisco is not quite mainstream yet,” said Julie Reiner, an owner of two New York clubs, Lani Kai and Clover Club. “But it is gaining traction as the public learns about it.”
Peru leads the surge, with pisco exports to the U.S. having nearly doubled last year, according to Veritrade, an import consultancy. Pisco Porton may be the one of the best-funded new brands, but it is not the first at the high end. In 2005, Diego Loret de Mola, a Peruvian-American who had worked in finance, began to import BarSol. Melanie and Lizzie Asher, sisters who were born in Peru, attended Harvard and now live in Washington, introduced Macchu Pisco in 2006. Within a year, they were the biggest exporters of Peruvian pisco, and they say their sales have increased 30 percent every year.
What distinguishes the Peruvian newcomers is quality.
“We get our grapes from a cooperative of women growers,” Melanie Asher said. “We monitor the wild yeasts, use cold fermentation and generally go beyond the rules.”
And there are rules galore. To be called pisco in Peru, the spirit must be made from grapes grown in designated coastal valleys from Lima south. There are 42 valleys, and eight varietals, classified as aromatic, like muscatel or Italia, or nonaromatic, like uebranta, a high-yielding grape that is the most widely used. After the harvest, which runs from February to May, grapes are crushed and naturally fermented, then distilled in copper alembics, like cognac. Pisco is also distilled to proof, meaning it is not diluted with water before bottling.
The rules in Chile are somewhat looser, allowing added sugar and water, and some aging in oak.
Though there are similarities on the palate between pisco and grappa from Italy or marc from France, those potions are made from must, the dregs from winemaking, whereas pisco is an eau de vie of grapes that is fragrant, fruity and often has a rich viscosity.
Some of the interest also can be traced to cocktail culture, which is obsessed with novelty. Acknowledging this, Peruvian pisco makers are showcasing their wares at Tales of the Cocktail, a convention in New Orleans in July that is heavily attended by bartenders.
No latter-day mixologist is likely to come up with anything to unseat the pisco sour, the national cocktail of Peru. Invented by a U.S. bar owner in Lima about 100 years ago, it is a model of simplicity, made with sugar syrup, lime juice and egg white. Drops of bitters mark the froth on the surface.
“The pisco sour is a point of entry,” Lizzie Asher said. “You can do a lot more. We want to avoid what happened with cachaca, which is known only for the caipirinha.”
At New York’s Rayuela, the mixologist, Amaury Robayo, makes a pisco drink with muddled strawberries and a jolt of jalapeno.
Rodolfo Mayor, the owner of the Pio Pio chain in New York, has turned his flagship into pisco central, with 17 different bottles on the bar. They can be drunk neat in a small glass, the traditional Peruvian way (Riedel now makes a crystal pisco glass), or in any of 16 cocktails. Besides the inevitable pisco sour, there is the classic Chilcano with pisco, ginger ale, lime and bitters; and the Viejo Verde, a pisco mojito. In August, Mayor plans to open Amaru, a pisco bar, in Queens.
In San Francisco, where the first shipments of Peruvian pisco landed in 1836, the pisco punch is an old standby made with pineapple and once, perhaps, cocaine. You’ll find it, without the drug, at new pisco-friendly bars like Cantina, Destino and Pisco Latin Lounge.
“For the pisco purist, it’s all very exciting,” Childs said. “It’s like the pre-Prohibition days, only better.”