Chileans are passionate about pisco
Globe-trotting locals develop taste for spirit
When I visited Chile 12 years ago with my husband, we got the impression that pisco was a big deal. Everybody was drinking the potent spirit made by distilling fermented grape juice: young hipsters at bars sipped pisco sours, old gauchos on ferry rides savoured it neat, and university co-eds slammed it back in piscolas (pisco with Coke).
The thing is, we never tried pisco on its own — or in cocktail form — because we could buy fantastic bottles of Chilean wine for $5 or $6. Plus, we didn’t really know what pisco was; it intimidated us (Read: we saw how drunk it got the Chileans). So, we sipped fermented grape juice and didn’t bother with the distilled version. Our loss.
What a difference a decade makes. Pisco — along with other Latin spirits including mescal from Mexico and cachaca from Brazil — is expanding its reach well north of Central and South America, into coupe glasses at bars in the United States and Canada. Local bartender Neila MacIntyre, who pours pisco at Ox and Angela on 17th Avenue S.W., says that out of all the bars she’s worked in across Canada, pisco has never been as popular as it is in Calgary. She credits Calgarians’ love of globe-trotting with helping to elevate the spirit’s status from unheard of to ubiquitous.
“Calgarians are exploring the world a lot more and travelling a lot more. They’ll come back from a trip to Chile or Peru and ask for pisco,” MacIntyre says.
“It’s one of those ‘hidden’ spirits people don’t know a lot about. They’re interested in learning about it and asking questions.”
Pisco is made in specific regions of Chile and Peru and the two countries have long argued over which can claim origin of denomination. The spirit is more often associated with Peru, which contains a town, a valley and a river by the name of Pisco, but it has probably been made in Chile just as long. Spanish settlers in the 1500s were the original piscomakers — they were trying to recreate orujo, a Spanish brandy made from pressed wine grapes.
On its own, pisco smells of white wine, citrus and peaches, and tastes like a creamy cognac. Its strength comes through in a traditional Pisco Sour (see recipe), but that oomph is bal- anced by lime juice and softened by egg white and simple syrup. The short, tart and frothy drink tastes rather like a margarita only smoother, with more grape essence and lacking that tequila bite. It’s delish.
Ox and Angela twists this classic and shakes it up as a Pisco & Pear Sour (see recipe). MacIntyre adds an ounce of pear purée and a bit of natural agave syrup for sweetener, a change-up that adds depth to the drink. The subtle pear flavour plays well with the lime and the pisco’s grape notes, and the whole thing pleases my palate greatly. When MacIntyre tells me that sometimes people come in and end up ordering six in a row, I believe her. (Look for a Pretty in Pink on the menu for Valentine’s Day; it’s made with pisco, pink grapefruit juice, agave syrup and cinnamon.)
MacIntyre uses a Chilean pisco called El Gobernador, a product she really likes.
“There’s a little bit more of a richness to it than a Peruvian pisco,” she says.
Horacio Fuentes, a winemaker with Miguel Torres, couldn’t agree more. He’s been tasked with exporting El Gobernador, the wine label’s pisco product, to North America and Europe and thinks he’s got a winner.
“It’s a pisco reservado with 40 per cent alcohol, and 100 per cent pure distillation. That gives it a fruitiness and lets its aro- mas stand out — peach, banana, white chocolate,” Fuentes says by phone from Chile.
As to why pisco is becoming so popular, Fuentes guesses.
“It probably has to do with gastronomy. The restaurants are pushing out the pisco sour on their wine and spirits lists. And people hear about the pisco sour from Peru and Chile,” he says.
Yes, I’d heard about it long before it showed up on Calgary cocktail menus from Ming to Model Milk. And while Ox and Angela specializes in the food of Spain and shares that Latin link to pisco, many other restaurants don’t. It goes to show that pisco is a stand-alone spirit. Those Chileans are passionate about pisco for good reason.
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