By CHRISTINE SISMONDO
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 7, 2018
Of all the great brand ambassadors in the spirits world, the pisco sour might be the best.
After all, the tart and frothy cocktail has hoisted this grapebased spirit from South America from relative obscurity into a pretty well-known liquor - one that many regard fondly, thanks to its association with the sour.
Unfortunately, the flip side of this is that pisco is also a victim of its namesake cocktail's success, which has led people to believe pisco is a one-trick pony. It goes in a sour. How could it be served any other way?
That's about to change in Canada this summer, though, as the pisco sections at many liquor stores will expand to include Peruvian pisco puro - single-varietal expressions that can do a lot more than get shaken up into its namesake cocktail. These new piscos are tasty enough to command the leading role in stirred, spirit-forward cocktails. Some are good enough to be enjoyed straight up.
"Tasting a straight puro changes your whole perception of the spirit, since we're used to having pisco with egg white and all of the citrus that you can't taste through," says Leah Mucci, a cocktail bartender who's part of the team that recently opened Drake Mini Bar in Toronto. "A good torontel is very aromatic, has a lot of depth of flavour and drinks like a high-end grappa."
Mucci's experience with the torontel comes from her recent travels to Azpitia and Ica, two pisco-producing regions in Peru, but she's excited about the prospect of being able to offer it to guests at her bar, now that LCBO's Vintages program is bringing in La Caravedo Torontel, a premium puro that picked up a double gold medal at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition in the unaged white-spirit category. This awardwinning torontel will be sold next to its cousin, the La Caravedo Quebranta, representing the two faces of pisco puro, aromatic and non-aromatic options, respectively.
We're lucky to have both at the same time, since tasting the pair is a great introduction to pisco puro. The Torontel has a rich mouth feel and a nice balance of light elderflower notes and citrus, whereas the Quebranta is much fruitier and tastes more like a traditional grape eau-de-vie. The difference is owing wholly to the grape varietal; Peruvian pisco production standards are so exacting that there's nothing to hide behind. It's the original "naked grape."
"The characteristic of the varietal and the characteristic of the terroir comes through so strongly with pisco," says James Grant, bar manager at the newly opened Wilfred's in Edmonton. "If what you're really interested in is experiencing the character of the grape, a high-quality pisco is, I would say, the best entry point into the world of spirits."
Through Alberta's private liquor stores, Grant has access to another premium brand that offers several single-varietal pisco brands, Campo de Encanto. It produces a moscatel, torontel and quebranta, three of the eight grapes that are used for Peruvian pisco. Those who want to try a fourth will have to travel to Quebec (or Peru, of course), where the provincial SAQ carries La Botija Tabernero, made from another aromatic grape varietal, italia.
Technically, these aren't the very first puros we've ever had in Canada, since Quebec has offered a few quebrantas in the past and Ontario had at least one - Macchu Pisco, which is due back at the LCBO's Vintages the first week of July. Other than that, most other piscos previously available in Canada have been either acholados (blends) or Chilean imports, which have an entirely different style.
In Chile, pisco can be produced through a multiple distillation method, during which it's distilled to a very high proof, then later diluted. Conversely, Peruvian pisco is always produced in a single distillation and must be distilled to the proof at which it will be bottled, meaning that the pisco is nothing but grape. The distiller has just one chance to get it right.
Flaws cannot be smoothed over, postdistillation, in the aging process, since Peruvian pisco is never aged in oak, which adds the taste of vanilla and caramel to spirits such as rum, whisky and cognac.
Blended acholados and Chilean piscos tend, therefore, to be used in punches and sours, while pisco puro, which can easily have rich ripe fruit, pear or even chocolate notes, are generally reserved for cocktails that showcase the spirit. Mucci says pisco puro shines in simple pisco tonic and martini-ish, minimalist stirred cocktails. Or, of course, straight.
Getting Canadians to drink pisco like a grappa, though, as one would in some parts of Peru, is still a novelty.
"Personally, I like straight pisco, but getting people to try white spirits that way is really an ongoing education process with the patrons," Grant says. "But when you have a guest at the bar who can recognize the beauty of a floral fruit component of an agave spirit, that's when you can say, 'Why don't you try something very similar but made from grapes?' " Even in Montreal, which is far ahead of the rest of the country in terms of pisco education (thanks to having many more Peruvian restaurants), people are a long way from ordering their pisco neat. Claude Pétrin, a partner at Mochica, one of the city's first Peruvian restaurants, says that when it's served that way, most patrons think it's a shot, not knowing it's meant to be sipped.
Given the learning curve he's already witnessed with pisco, he thinks that will eventually change, too.
"When we opened 14 years ago, we had to explain what the pisco sour was to each person that came in," Pétrin says. "Now most people can order a pisco sour before they have the menu in their hand."
"I concentrate only on bringing premium piscos to the market that can be taken both straight and in cocktails, the pisco puro that the Peruvians prefer to have," says Pétrin, who began importing Peruvian wines and spirits because there was no selection available at the SAQ when he opened. "It's still hard to get people to try it straight, but it will happen. Pisco sales have increased around the world. Canadians, we are a little bit behind, but it's on its way."
Pisco, a grape-based liquor best known for its use in cocktails, is about to come into its own in Canada as many liquor stores expand their selection.