June 14 (Bloomberg) -- I learned a few things when I was hiking the Inca trail to the ruins of the Machu Picchu citadel in Peru.
For instance, an altitude-sickness headache at 14,000 feet makes your head feel like it’s going to explode. The Incas were mighty handy with stonework. And the national cocktail of Peru, the pisco sour, is delicious.
I drank a lot of these frothy concoctions, without thinking much about what went into them. Then I studied up.
Pisco, the main ingredient, is a clear spirit distilled from grapes and named after the Peruvian port city from which it was first shipped to other markets. It also means “little bird” in the language of Peru’s Quechua Indians.
Peruvian law dictates that only certain types of grapes can be used in pisco’s production, and there’s an organization that verifies the authenticity of any beverage seeking to be designated as Peruvian pisco.
Master distiller Johnny Schuler spent about 20 years working with the Peruvian government and the private sector in regulating the pisco industry. Last year, he stepped down from his watchdog post to launch his own brand, Pisco Porton.
We met at The Trilby bar at the Cooper Square Hotel in Manhattan, where he told me that folks have been drinking this stuff for centuries.
“The history begins when the Spaniards arrive in South America in the mid-1500s,” Schuler said. “They were followed by a bunch of priests and monks. Everyone discovered to their dismay that no grapes grew in America. No grapes meant no wine. No wine meant no Mass on Sundays.
“So this made these guys go back to Spain, bring back seeds and plant. When production became abundant, they found it was easier to transport if it was distilled.”
‘An Old Product’
Schuler, who was raised in Peru by an American father and a Bolivian mother of Swiss descent, says the market is growing for the two countries that produce the spirit, Peru and Chile.
“It is an old product that today is a new product,” Schuler said by way of explanation. “Between Chile and Peru, we are exporting 20,000 cases a year.”
Peruvian law limits distillers to eight grape varieties. As Schuler and I sipped expertly prepared sours, he explained the three basic types of pisco that come from that fruit:
“One comprises all the piscos that are single malt called puro. The second is called acholado, which is a blend of any of the eight. And the third category is mosto verde, which is the elite of the piscos because it is distilled before all of the fermentation has turned into alcohol. For that you need 30 percent more grapes, so it is more expensive and more difficult to make. It’s liquid velvet.”
Feeling that even more research could do no harm, I met Lizzie da Trindade-Asher, president of Macchu Pisco LLC, at the Latin American restaurant Yerba Buena Perry in the West Village. As I endured the sampling of more pisco sours, she offered her undiluted view of the spirit world.
“Vodka is the boring cousin from Idaho. Gin is the overbearing cousin from Texas,” da Trindade-Asher said. “Pisco is the perfect balance between the two, grabbing the attention of the imbiber without becoming boring after a few sips.”
The Macchu Pisco brand has teamed up with the Peruvian government in a contest to find the “Centennial Macchu Pisco Sour” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu. Peruvian consulates in the U.S. are inviting top mixologists to the “Centennial Macchu Pisco Sour Invitationals” in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Regional winners get a trip to Lima for the finals.
To keep you happy until then, here is a recipe for a pisco sour:
In an ice-filled cocktail shaker combine:
-- 1 1/2 ounces pisco
-- 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
-- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
-- 1/2 ounce egg white
-- a few drops Angostura bitters
Shake for about 15 seconds and strain into a glass with ice.
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