It was a revelation when I tasted my first “pisco” about seventeen years ago in the classic cocktail, Pisco Sour. Immediately, I fell in love with the drink, as the spirit, lemon juice, simple syrup, foamy egg white, and the light touch of Angostura bitters floating on top, produced a beautifully balanced and delicious accompaniment to the South American food that I was enjoying. It didn’t hurt that I found myself in a breath taking semi-tropical setting, lounging on the porch of the hacienda where I was a guest, a fiery sunset forming the backdrop. As I sipped with gusto, I did not realize that there was a controversy associated with this spirit, so I drank innocently, oblivious to the international brouhaha that had been simmering years before and that would eventually erupt and blow the lid off of the entire category. For I was in Chile drinking that Pisco Sour and therein lies the rub. Little did I know that in 1974, Chile enacted legislation banning the importation of any spirit labeled “pisco”, an attempt to keep the peruvian version away from the Chilean consumer, although today, Peruvian pisco is exported to Chile, but under a different name.
It was the great and colorful raconteur, Mr. Gary Regan, mentor to many of us who study cocktails and practice mixology, who first brought this to my attention. My skepticism kicked in when Gary talked about his first trip to Peru to study of all things, pisco ! “But isn’t pisco from Chile” ? I asked. He explained that the town of Pisco was located in Peru and that the truly original spirit known as pisco, was born in that country. I learned about the controversy at that very moment.
Founded in 1640, the town of Pisco is located along the southern coast of Peru, a location where wildlife abounds. The Quechua natives named the village, which means “bird”.
Many people do not realize that this aromatic and flavorful spirit called pisco is grape-based. At Porton‘s Hacienda La Caraveda and San Isidro estates, a selection of grapes is made bunch by bunch, harvested only when they are deemed to be fully-ripened. Quebranta is the principle grape variety for the production of Porton, but Torontel and Albilla are included as well. The laws in Peru are stricter than in Chile where it is perfectly legal to add water and sugar and where distillation can take place in industrial size column stills. Flavor and purity are critical elements of Porton production and it is Johnny Schuler, managing partner, Master Distiller, and pisco “Professor Extraordinaire”,who is the gatekeeper, ensuring the quality and the consistency of the spirit produced here. Fermentation of the grape juice is accomplished naturally, using only the wild yeast that clings to grape skins. Once the juice is pressed, it is allowed to ferment, but not completely. This unique method is known as ‘Mosto Verde’ and is used to enhance the character of the final spirit. Distillation takes place in small pot-stills, which means Porton is produced in batches, not continuously, allowing, once again, for greater retention of flavor and complexity.
Another difference between pisco produced in Peru and many other spirits, has to do with distillation to the precise level of alcohol, which means water is not required to lower the proof. Mr. Schuler proudly states that pisco from Peru may not be watered down like other spirits, therefore the true character and flavor profile of the product, remains intact. Each of these steps is reflected in the purity of pisco from Peru and in its unique quality and character.
Johnny Schuler likes to characterize the Porton distillery as “Techno-Artisanal”, as it is a state-of-the-art operation that has never forgotten the original methods of production that give pisco its identity. Porton is hand-crafted, combining the best of the old and the new.
As he leads us on a walking tour of Hacienda La Caravedo, Johnny explains that the property was founded by Jesuits in the 1600’s and it was during this era that pisco was first produced in Peru. It is estimated that by the mid 1600’s there was a distillery built on the property that was purchased by Roque Caravedo in 1684, making Hacienda La Caravedo the oldest working distillery in the Americas. The old distillery has been carefully and lovingly restored and is not just for show, as it is still being used today for pisco production. The new distillery is a gem, spotless and gleaming with copper and stainless steel, high tech yes, but at the same time respecting the use of small artisanal copper pot-stills that help preserve the full flavor and complexity inherent in the grapes that produce Porton.
For all of these reasons, Johnny Schuler likes to say that Porton is “hand-crafted perfection you can taste.” No doubt there are more good things in store from this up and coming pisco distillery that has already created an important niche for itself, not just as a fine pisco, but as one of the finest and most natural spirits produced anywhere in the world.
by Jeffrey Pogash
(Father Of Owner)