Use pisco in place of bourbon whiskey in a Manhattan cocktail for a fragrant, delicious twist on a classic. (Photo/Courtesy Pisco Portón )

Weekend Cocktail: Pisco from A to Z

There’s absolutely no doubt that pisco – a clear spirit much like brandy, produced from wine grapes that are fermented into wine and then distilled – is one of the hottest items stocked at the bar from coast to coast nationwide. Aromatic and smooth, pisco lends itself to a number of different preparations and once you’ve had it – whether infused with herbs, whirled with tropical fruit or shaken with Angostura bitters, limes and egg white for a classic pisco sour – you’re likely to be a sworn convert. But pisco wasn’t always a mainstay at American bars and it’s thanks in part to self-appointed pisco ambassador Johnny Schuler that pisco is so prominent in the United States today.

For two decades, Schuler has helped develop the pisco industry in Peru and working with the government and private sector there, has played an integral part of bringing premium pisco to the U.S. market. A native of Peru, Schuler was first a prominent restaurateur and chef with a taste for wine; when he was asked by a judge a pisco tasting competition in 1977, he did so as a favor and hasn’t looked back since.

“In those days it was a relatively cheap spirit; no one would drink it straight and neat,” recalls Schuler. “But it just so happened that what I drank that day really impressed me. I don’t know if I fell in love with pisco or if pisco fell in love with me, but it’s been a total, consuming passion of mine since then and from that day on I was determined to share the best of Peruvian pisco with the world.”

Master pisco distiller Johnny Schuler.

Master distiller Johnny Schuler at the Peruvian distillery where he oversees pisco production. (Photo/Courtesy Pisco Portón )

As a founding member of both the National Tasters Guild of Peru and Peruvian Academy of Pisco, Schuler has worked to promote pisco across the world, judging competitions, speaking at events, working with chefs and mixologists to incorporate pisco into their menus, and even extolling the virtues of pisco at home on his popular television show “Por Las Rutas del Pisco.”

RELATED: The classic Peruvian pisco sour

Pisco is one of the oldest spirits in the world,” says Schuler, noting that Spanish colonialists in Peru began producing pisco in the 16th century as an alternative to Spanish brandies. Schuler says the first grapevines used in pisco production date back to the mid-1500s and as pisco was one of the first spirits introduced to San Francisco, California, it truly made an impression on the New World and was one of the most popular spirits both in Latin America and on the American west coast. But history helped cement pisco’s gradual decline: in the 1920s, Prohibition erased the popularity of pisco punch in San Francisco;  an earthquake in Peru in 1947 nearly destroyed pisco vineyards and as part of post-World War II recovery, farmers planted corn rather than grape vines, causing a detrimental blow to the industry.  In 1977, when Schuler had his first sips of pisco, there were only about 60 pisco distillers in Peru; today there are 400 and Schuler is one of them as the master distiller of Portón Pisco, which made in small batches at a hacienda distillery in Ica, Peru that was built in 1684.

And as passionate as Schuler is about pisco, there are a few things he wants consumers to know. First: true Peruvian pisco is never diluted with water or alcohol; it is never aged in wood or fermented entirely and to make a true mosto verde pisco – the highest quality of pisco, made with 16-18 pounds of sweet quebranta grapes per bottle – the must (grape juice) used should pressed from whole fruit, never from leftover skins and stems like an Italian grappa. As for ways to enjoy the finished product at home, Schuler says it’s important to keep in mind that pisco is “the most versatile of all spirits”; you can drink it neat, on its own or with a cup of espresso or play up its fruit flavors with any type of fruit.

Pisco is one of my favorite ways to introduce people to the beauty of Peruvian cuisine and culture,” says Schuler. “I’m happy to be its ambassador.”

Here’s a recipe for one of Schuler’s favorite cocktails, the Capitán. It’s similar to a Manhattan, but incorporates pisco rather than bourbon whiskey. It’s a cocktail that has been popular in Peru since the 1940s and perfect for sipping before or after a meal.

Capitán

Ingredients

1-1/2 parts Portón pisco

1-1/2 parts red Vermouth

2 dashes of bitters

Preparation: Place ingredients in a shaker filled with ice and shake for 8 seconds.  Strain into in a frosted martini glass.  Garnish with a cherry. Makes one cocktail.

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