The Rebirth of a Pre-Prohibition Liquor

One man's quest to bring high-end, Peruvian-made pisco back into the bars of the United States

porton5.jpgPiscoPorton.com

Of all the potent potables knocked flat by Prohibition, none has taken longer to climb back up to the bar as pisco, the clear, brandy-like Peruvian liquor. For a half-century before the Noble Experiment, it dominated the West Coast drinking scene; picked up by California-bound sailors after rounding Cape Horn, it practically built San Francisco, whose bars overflowed with sours, punches and shot after shot of straight pisco.

Yet by 1933, the journalist Herbert Asbury could describe it in near-mythic terms: Pisco "must have been something to write home about," he wrote in Barbary Coast, his profile of the City by the Bay. And yet, he reported, "so far as I could learn, no recognizable pisco brandy has been seen there since Prohibition. The speak-easy bartenders had never heard of it." Even today, despite a doubling of imports in recent years, pisco remains a rarity outside Latin-flavored bars.

Johnny Schuler would like to change that. Schuler is the master distiller of Portón, a relatively new pisco that has quickly cornered the premium market in the United States. More importantly, perhaps, he is also the father of the modern pisco industry in Peru -- and its most zealous advocate, at home and abroad. He writes books. He hosts a TV show. If he hasn't met with every bartender who has ever even considered buying a bottle, he's close. Once, when a disgruntled restaurant owner in New Jersey called Portón's Lima office to cancel his account, Schuler was on a plane within hours and sidling up to the restaurant bar the next morning. He won back the account. For his effort, in 2007 the Peruvian Congress awarded him a Medal of Honor.

Schuler, who at 64 years old has the aged suavity of a Telenovela patriarch or a Bond villain, is a relatively recent convert to pisco. The son of a restaurant owner, he grew up, he said, behind his father's bar, aware of pisco in the dim, slightly condescending way that an American foodie might look at baloney. "It was the thing you had in the speed rack," he said.

It didn't help that, by the early 20th century, Peru's larger pisco makers had grown so dependent on American consumers that Prohibition wiped many of them out. And as Peru's economy grew after World War II, the new middle class inevitably turned to higher-status drinks like whiskey, rum and brandy. (Land reforms that pushed Peru's farmers into cotton and other crops hit struggling vineyards, too).

Still, pisco production persisted among small, rural distillers, who churned out a few dozen gallons a year for their families and friends. And while the market for the drink may have disappeared, the traditions and regulations didn't. By longstanding law, Peruvian pisco has to be distilled in copper pots from one of eight grape varieties, then allowed to mellow for at least three months. The distillations can be blended -- called "acholado" -- but nothing can be added, not even water. Acholados and "puros," or unblended piscos, can be equally good, but many discerning drinkers prefer a third category, called "mosto verde," which is made from grape juice that has only been partly fermented, so that it keeps some of its natural sweetness. (Portón is a mosto verde.)

Schuler knew next to none of this when, in the late 1980s, he accepted an invitation to a pisco tasting. By then he was a successful Lima restaurant owner and a macher on the local wine scene. He didn't expect much, but the tasting floored him. "The first few piscos were crap," he said. "But the fourth, I took a whiff, and my life changed." The next day he scoured the city's liquor stores and came home with 50 bottles. He spent the following months on weekend trips to visit the producers of the ones he most enjoyed. He stocked them in his restaurants, and he organized competitions, promotional tours, and his own tastings around the country. By the early 2000s, what had been a moribund artifact of rural Peruvian life was once again a national treasure.

Still, almost all the pisco made in Peru was consumed domestically. Because it came exclusively from small producers who had little marketing experience and often even less interest in growing commercially, there simply wasn't the sort of economy of scale that would make exporting worthwhile. Plus, there already was a pisco on the international market -- only, it was made in Chile. Though pisco has been made in Peru for hundreds of years and is named after a Peruvian port, the decline in national production through most of the 20th century allowed Chile and its massive wine industry to horn in on the market. Today Chile and its two dominant pisco distillers, Capel and Control, produce about 50 million liters, compared with the 7 million liters produced in Peru. If you've had pisco in the United States, chances are it came from Chile.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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