Pisco, a clear grape brandy from the stills of South America, is the fastest-growing liquor in the booze biz, and I’ll bet you a round of dry Capitáns that cocktail historians will record this as the season of its breakthrough among norteamericanos. Going into the summer drinking term, it demonstrated considerable momentum, with the Peruvian Association of Exporters boasting that in the first four months of 2011, U.S. sales increased by 210 percent year on year, to about $750,000. Granted, there are individual persons who spent a comparable amount of money on bottle-service Grey Goose over the same span of time, but listen to the culture—the dispatches filed from Seattle and West Hollywood and Queens —and look at the aggressiveness of these pisco salesmen. This could be the most determined marketing assault on America’s liquor cabinets since the period, just after World War II, when Smirnoff hitched its wagon to the Moscow Mule.
The pisco people believe that a rising viscous tide will lift all ships. In the foreword to Gregory Dicum’s Pisco Book—a savvy promotional item half-disguised as a handsome user’s manual—the importer of Oro calls on brands to join together to “develop the pisco category as whole.” In that spirit, Peru’s de facto pisco ambassador to the United States is one Johnny Schuler, who is hustling Pisco Portón as an “ultra-premium” brand and product-placing bottles adjacent to Shakira’s authoritative writhing in music videos. This is not to slight the efforts of Peru’s actual ambassador to the United States, whose office is helping to promote Macchu Pisco and who, just the other night, plied the noted trendsetter Antonin Scalia with pisco sours. Can it be long before Clarence Thomas is faddishly queuing up behind Georgetown sorority girls for a cloying pink piscopolitan?
Don’t hate pisco because it’s fashionable. It couldn’t happen to a better liquor. There is fine mellow fruitiness to be found out there, not to mention a kick that has been famous for 400 years. The rising of pisco’s star should be cause for celebration, and even if you prefer to do your celebrating with liquor as opposed to for it, it pays to know what’s what: A guest may bring a bottle of versatile BarSol to your next party or a girlfriend may drag you within the walls of a loud Latin restaurant, which may be adorned with bad murals. How to order smartly? How to posture convincingly? How to mix pisco suavely with the scarce ingredients at hand in your pathetic larder? Here is a bluffer’s guide.
Start contriving your cocktail chatter by developing some superficial remarks about appellation and denomination. Though the liquor—earlier known as aguardiente de uva (“grape liquor”)—takes its name from a port in Peru, Chile also claims pisco as its national liquor. Peruvians contend that a vast majority of Chilean pisco is adulterated swill; Chileans have yet to muster a convincing counterargument; Americans have two ways to go.
- Side stridently with Peru, feigning knowledgeability about its strict laws regarding grape varietals and distilling to proof and such.
- Avoid entangling alliances and quickly turn to a domestic subject. History of Pisco in San Francisco—compiled and annotated by Guillermo Toro-Lira, an investor in that city’s Pisco Latin Lounge—amounts to a slim scrapbook documenting the town’s love affair with this liquor, complete with an illustration of the frigate that first brought it to the Bay Area in the late 1700s. It will provide fodder for lovely geeks and awful pedants alike. Do say things like, “Pisco didn’t really take hold in San Fran until the Gold Rush.” Don’t actually refer to the place as San Fran, you dork. I quote Herb Caen’s comments on the no-less-abominable Frisco: “Caress each Spanish syllable, salute our Italian Saint.”
Next, you’ll want to adopt a sophisticated attitude toward the most famous of pisco drinks, the pisco sour. Ravenous thirst, jaded nonchalance, and mixological dogmatism are popular options, as is manifesting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder upon hearing the cocktail’s name. If you want to be a purist, then use key limes, but even lemons are legit. If memory serves, and I’m not sure it does, I got my yummiest results when preparing two at time: Lovingly dump six ounces of pisco, a generous couple ounces of citrus juice, the white of one egg, and not too much simple syrup into a shaker; shake succinctly to emulsify the egg; add ice; shake again with stern purpose; strain into two gorgeous Champagne coupes; finally, try dashing a straight line of Angostura bitters across the ambrosial foam of it.
Your first self-administered pisco sour will be deliciously tangy and the second impressively frothy and the fourth depressively frongy. Because of the egg-white action, the serial mixing of pisco sours offers an entertaining way to observe the progressive deterioration of your motor skills or those of the people you care about. There is a little-known corollary to the rule that friends don’t let friends drink and drive: A friend who is driving doesn’t let a friend who is too drunk on egg-y drinks to successfully separate an egg get anywhere near his own auto upholstery.
What to do with all those leftover yolks? Two possibilities:
- The Algarrobina is an old-school ladies’ drink. You are supposed to fill your blender with ice, pisco, evaporated milk, egg yolk, and the sweetener that gives the cocktail its name, a syrup made from the fruit of the black carob tree. Despite being the furthest thing from a lady, I resolved to try one. Because I didn’t happen to have any syrup made from the fruit of the black carob tree around the house, I substituted Bosco. Because I hate the blender, I skipped the blender. Reader, I drank it, and I’d gladly do so again, at the dessert hour, as long as there’s freshly grated cinnamon around.
- Wrap the yolks tightly and save them in the fridge overnight for scrambled eggs. Serve these with a Chilcano, a highball involving pisco, good ginger ale, lemon or lime juice, and, for a nice medicinal tang, whatever bitters are at hand. Sharing its name with a fish soup popular as a morning-after restorative, the Chilcano is not only a reliable cure for hangovers but also a delightful means of obtaining one.
Where the pisco sour enjoys renown, pisco punchreally enjoys notoriety. A pineapple-y elixir, it was supposedly brought to perfection by Duncan Nicol at a storied San Francisco bar called the Bank Exchange in the late 1800s. In the account of luscious Lucius Beebe, pisco punch was “the wonder and glory of San Francisco’s heady youth, the balm and solace of fevered generations, a drink so endearing and inspired that although its prototype has vanished, its legend lingers on, one with the Grail, the unicorn, and the music of the spheres.”
Nicol’s precise recipe died with him, but many fine minds—guided by an article in the fall 1973 number of the California Historical Quarterly—are convinced that they can reach his heights by using pineapple-infused gomme syrup. If you’re willing to pay for shipping, you can send away for this stuff. If you’re up for a minor science experiment, you can make your own. But you cannot, under any circumstances, come up with a quick, cheap substitute. (Sno-Kone syrup just won’t cut it.) I wasted a great deal of effort attempting to contrive an effortless pisco punch. The attempt was fruitless in every respect. However, I did learn that, with seltzer and pineapple juice and grenadine, you can reinvent Harold Ross’ spurious recipe as a formula for a quartz-colored cooler, faintly tropical and fairly decent.
Also, my reading has convinced me that, gomme syrup or no, it is no longer legally possible to make authentic pisco punch. There is no reason to disbelieve the rumors that Nicol’s pisco punch depended on the active ingredient in the “Peruvian Speed Bumps” about which P.J. O’Rourke has memorably written. It would be consistent with Toro-Lira’s concluding observation that “tonics and syrups containing cocaine … were very popular from the 1860s to the 1890s and at the disposal of the Bank Exchange.” And it would square with a quote relayed by A.J. Liebling in The Honest Rainmaker, where pisco punch is characterized as “an insidious concoction which in its time had caused the unseating of South American governments and women to set world’s records in various and interesting fields of activity.” I strongly recommend against trying to use street drugs to duplicate these results. You could try searching for unprocessed sun-dried coca leaves, but be sure to consult a physician, an attorney, and a shady biochemist before proceeding.
It would better for your health and your pocketbook to stick with capital-C Coke. The Piscola—pisco and a little lime juice topped with the real thing—is one of the highest uses to which cola can be put as a mixer. The cocktail is ideal for fretful home bartenders who are skittish about the risks of the pisco sour (salmonella) and pisco punch (arrest for possession with intent to distribute) and also too timid to engineer their own pisco sidecar s. And this is one last talking point for you:
“You know, Jen, if I were a pisco importer, I’d be pushing the Piscola as an entry-point cocktail for twentysomethings. So approachable! It’s less sweet than a Cuba Libre and less sharp than a Jack-and-Coke, but it doesn’t exactly require a refined palate, either.”
“You’re so right, Cecil! It’s actually a perfect angle for the Chileans whose stuff will be hitting the U.S. market this fall. Did you know that they celebrate a National Piscola Day? What a great way to mask the deficiencies of their adulterated swill!”