All piscos are not created equal

It’s not every day that you get an invitation to hang out with the so-called “best nose in Peru.” It was partly for that nose that Pisco Porton’s master distiller Johnny Schuler was awarded the Peruvian Congressional Medal of Honor.

He has written several books on pisco and has served on various organizations, including the agency that tasted and verified the authenticity of any beverage seeking official designation as Peruvian pisco.

As he says, for 20 years “all the piscos produced in the country were approved by me.”

Officially, pisco is designated as a brandy made from the partially fermented must of grapes.

“Pisco is made from freshly fermented wine, it’s not a finished wine, it’s not wine you’d want to drink,” he says. “It’s a raw wine, a vino madre, a mother wine.”

It is then distilled once, in either a copper charentaise still — the same type used for Cognac — or in a special pisco still called a falca, which has no head. The resultant brandy then, according to Peruvian law, must be aged for a minimum of three months in containers of “glass, stainless steel or any other material which does not alter its physical, chemical or organic properties,” and no additives of any kind may be added that would alter its appearance, taste, odor or alcoholic proof.

“The king of spirits is cognac. But pisco is better” he say. “Cognac is made after 15 years of oak. They can add caramel and sugar.”

Peruvian pisco usually hovers around 80 proof and comes in four grades:

• Puro: made from quebranta, mollar or black grapes.

• Aromáticas: made from muscatel grapes (the same grapes used to make Italy’s Asti spumante).

• Most verde (green must): distilled from partially fermented must.

• Acholado (half-breed): blended from the must of several varieties of grapes.

Pisco Porton is based in Ica, Peru, at the Hacienda La Caravedo, which dates back to 1684.

“We wanted the real story, not something new or fake, that is why we bought the distillery” — the oldest distillery in the Americas, he says. “What we do is produce high-quality pisco. We are small but we are self-contained.”

As proof. he tells a story: In 2010 Pisco Porton’s first harvest was small and Schuler needed to buy grapes. He tells the story of the first truckload that arrived at his distillery.

“What is this sh*t?”

“Grapes to make pisco,” the driver said.

“Those are third-quality grapes.”

“That is what you make pisco with,” replied the driver.

“Not my pisco.” He never bought grapes again.

Truth be told, Schuler is not a Peruvian national.

“My father was Swiss and my mother was Bolivian, but they ended up in Peru after the war. I’ve been married three times to Peruvian women, my daughters are Peruvian, my grandchildren are Peruvian, but I am Swiss.”

He shrugs it off.

“When I die, it will be in Peru and my ashes will be scattered in the fields to make pisco.”

For the uninitiated, pisco has the aromatic smell of grappa or marc (two other unaged brandies) but not their burning aftertaste. Schuler says that is because those brandies are made from the residue of wine and not from fresh wine. A sip of good pisco is likely to burst with hints of citrus, peach or flowers depending on the variety. The finish is long and silky, with just a hint of alcoholic fire. He also claims that pisco makes better cocktails.

“Why do you make a cocktail and put wood into it when you can add fruit?” he asks. “It certainly makes a more interesting cocktail.”

With pisco sours all the rage these days he might have a point.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• “Pisco” is Quechua for “little bird,” and is also applied to the clay jars in which the natives manufactured and stored beverages.

• The pisco sour (lime, sugar, egg white, Angostura bitters) was invented either by an Englishman in Chile or an American in Lima. Take your pick.

• The chilcano (Angostura bitters, lime and ginger ale) — the current hipster drink in Peru — is also known as a Lima llama, and is a riff on the Moscow mule.