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