Mix Masters Hit Incaland

Jeffery Lindenmuth / January 2007

A South American sojourn, a native spirit, and an international competition stir the creative souls of cocktail pros.

Gathered at a hacienda in the agrarian Ica Valley of Peru, a dozen leading bartenders from the United States are swaying to the Afro rhythms of men and boys making music on wooden fruit crates. A few of the equine inclined take the reins of the proud Peruvian Paso horses, natural prancers that maintain the rider's gaze even with the horizon, better to survey the workers in the surrounding vineyards and fields. All the while, the percussionists punctuate their beats with cries of "agua!" It's not water they invoke, but another great Peruvian tradition: pisco.

Pisco is little known in the United States, at least in our lifetime. But inspired by infamous early 20th century cocktails like Pisco Punch and the Pisco Sour, these bartenders have traveled here to learn about the traditional white brandy, which still survives unchanged in the surrounding communities. There are 250 recognized producers, but literally thousands of small sites, like El Catador Distillery, Ica, where four families make pisco using a shared traditional falca, a low-profile still that combines the Inca tradition of copper pot making with European alambic technology. Here, grapes are still crushed by stomping workers, often working through the night to avoid the bees drawn to the sweet grape juice, fueled by chinguerito, a punch of grape juice, pisco, lime juice, and cinnamon, with 9 percent alcohol. Without pumps, the pisco is stored and transported by sheer muscle in massive clay pitchers, or botijas, many centuries old.

Many of these methods are still employed, even by the larger producers, like Bodega San Isidro, which offers the premium brands BarSol and Mendiola in the U.S. market and uses a copper pot still that dates to the 1800s. The distillery was revived by Carlos Ferreyros, who sees huge potential for the growth of pisco in the U.S. market, which currently consumes a mere 15,000 cases annually. "The Pisco Sour is our national drink," says Ferreyros. To prepare it by the batch, he blends three parts pisco to one part dry sugar. Next, he adds one part lime juice and stores the mixture in the freezer. "You can then take this and either blend it or shake it with egg white and ice. I like to add bitters on the top. They are traditional and have a wonderful smell and dramatic flavor," says Ferreyros. (He uses Amargo Chuncho, but Angostura bitters are a suitable substitute.)

But there is far more than meets the eye to this peasant spirit, and even the smallest producers follow the letter of the law in maintaining quality. At Instituto del Vino y del Pisco at the Universidad de San Martín de Porres in Lima, Mario Vingerhoets, marketing director, leads the bartenders through the points of differentiation between Peruvian and Chilean pisco, such as the popular Capel. The most significant differences lie in Chilean pisco being made in a column still, like that used for vodka, then aged in oak barrels, whereas Peruvian pisco is made in a single-batch process, like Cognac, and rested without the use of oak. In Peru, eight varieties of approved grapes can be used, yielding both pisco puro, the equivalent of varietal wines, or acholado, more like a house blend.

Julie Reiner, mixologist and co-owner of Flatiron Lounge and co-owner of Pegu Club in Manhattan, returned to her post with a new appreciation of pisco following the seminar and blind tasting, which included Peruvian pisco made from the eight approved grape varieties, both aromatic and nonaromatic.

"We've been doing Pisco Sours since we opened, and I was using Capel, from Chile." says Reiner. "It was really inexpensive, and there was no one here doing pisco education. Capel is easier to work with, but it doesn't have as much flavor. With the Peruvian pisco, it's more obvious that it's a grape spirit, with the aromas of brandy."

Reiner also introduced the "Flight to Peru" to salute her pilgrimage. The flight of three drinks includes a classic Pisco Sour, a Pisco Negroni (which she discovered in the nightclubs of Lima), plus an original creation called the Cuzco, wherein she combines BarSol Pisco, made with the aromatic Italia grape, with Aperol, fresh lemon and grapefruit juices, and a splash of simple syrup, and serves it up in a Kirschwasser-rinsed glass.

Reiner reports that the flight has proved both popular and puzzling, even for her cocktail-savvy crowd: "I'm surprised at how many people say, ‘What's pisco?' It's where Tequila was in the '60s, almost unknown." Diego Loret de Mola, president of Stamford, Connecticut–based BevMax International, a spirits consulting company, and native of Peru, says that the bartenders he gathered for this trip are the key to pisco's future in the United States. "I believe that bartenders are the people who will use this to make a difference, for themselves and also for the consumer. These bartenders are creators, artists, just like chefs. And they are excited to find a product that's mixable and has its own character," says Loret de Mola. "We want to have more establishments confident about using it and talking about it."

Several of the visiting bartenders also took time to attend the 10th annual Pan-American Cocktail Competition, held in Lima, with Gaston Martinez of Las Vegas' Nora's Cuisine representing the United States Bartenders' Guild (USBG) in the classic mixology competition. Thanks to the sponsorship of BarSol, Las Vegas bartenders are at the forefront of nuevo pisco cocktails. "I've had a lot of success with yuzu and acholado, which is a pisco blend using many of the aromatic pisco grapes," says Martinez. "The citrus of yuzu goes really well with it."

The USBG was started in Southern California in 1948 and has renewed interest in competitive bartending with the launch of a Las Vegas chapter in 2001, according to national vice president Ray Srp, who mixes at Bellagio's elite Club Privé. "The original guild was really a men's club where they got together, had drinks, and played cards. Where we've taken it, there is more competition involved and we offer a way to market new products," explains Srp, who created the Sideways Sour, a long drink combining 2 ounces pisco, 3/4 ounce Cointreau, 1 1/2 ounces white grape juice, 1 1/2 ounces fresh lemon juice, and 3/4 ounce Pinot Noir. While local chapters are hosting more frequent competitions, there are three big league mix-offs to look forward to in 2007, according to Srp: the World Cocktail Competition in Taiwan, the Pan-American Cocktail Competition in Venezuela, and the 42nd annual Bacardi Martini Grand Prix, held annually in Italy.

Granted the national cocktail status of the Pisco Sour, the drink was likely invented in California by American barman Victor Morris, then exported back to Lima with his opening of Morris Bar. With the renewed national pride regarding pisco, Lima bartenders like Hans Hilburg of Astrid & Gaston are excited about creating wholly original Peruvian drinks. "These are now the first actual Peruvian creations," says Hilburg of his list of two dozen cocktails. Hilburg likes to work with local produce, like hot peppers and beets, simmering them in citrus juices to add color and flavor to his cocktails.

The Camu-Camu Sour is made with pisco Torontel and camu-camu fruit, with flavors reminiscent of strawberry, black cherry, and rhubarb, with a bitter finish. His Carajo! cocktail is a dark purple, almost opaque, drink of pisco acholado, lime juice, and sauco, Peruvian elderberries, with their rich cassis flavor, served up with a single floating chunk of ice and fresh berry garnish. He even makes a sour that includes a maceration of notorious coca leaves.

According to Loret de Mola, The Cheesecake Factory has just agreed to add their own version of the Pisco Sour, using pineapple, to their cocktail list. And, as the fervor for Latin food and culture continues, he thinks bartenders are well positioned to capitalize on this upcoming spirit, with the Pisco Sour perhaps poised to be the Margarita of Peru. "No formula can be much simpler than 2:1:1, the classic Pisco Sour. But I am amazed at the confidence with which these mixologists, who now know the spirit, are able to make a variety of drinks," says Loret de Mola. "Traditionally a cocktail makes the spirit, and I see these contemporary bartenders now looking at pisco drinks with a modern twist."