Category Archives: Industry Thoughts

Peruvian Pisco Ponderances

I was recently in Peru for a couple weeks, and of course my primary objective down there was cocktail reconnaissance. I’ve always enjoyed pisco, and I’d been to a couple educational seminars on it, but I had still only ever tasted a few brands because we have very little of it in my state. So in between everything else I had planned down there I really wanted to get to know the spirit an the cocktails made from it.

I spent that whole time drinking pisco everywhere and every way I could find it, and I’ll give you my thoughts in my usual unorganized, drunken stream of consciousness manner.

The first thing I noticed was the customs declaration form they give you on the plane. Among the list of items prohibited from entering the country is “drinks manufactured abroad with the denomination ‘pisco'”. I knew they took the rivalry with Chile seriously but not that they would go so far as to confiscate the stuff!

Of course, the first drink I had was a pisco sour. When in Rome, amirite? I was surprised to see the bartender make it with limes! Later that day I went to the grocery store and I found out why. They don’t have lemons in Peru! My Spanish at that point was non-existent, but I asked the store clerk where I could find a lemon and he pointed me at limes. I had to get a phone out and show him a picture of a lemon and he told me they don’t ever have them!
I’ll spare you the whole long back story, but suffice it to say that “lima” is how you say lime in Spanish (and “limon” is lemon) in most places except, oddly, in the country whose capital is Lima. There they call them “limon amarillo” but you’re really hard-pressed to find one. Even employees in the produce department of a grocery store have never seen one. I saw them just once, at a really great cocktail bar, and I looked everywhere.

Their limes, though, aren’t the same. They’re small like a key lime and taste less bitter than the Persian limes we get here. They’re still seemingly about the same sourness. Here’s a good article I just found that backs up my findings and explains them much better.

I want to try making a 50/50 mix of lemon and lime in pisco sours in the future. I’ve only ever had them with lemons stateside but the Peruvian version was better.

The second drink I had was a “maracuya sour”. Maracuya is how they say passion fruit there. (Much of the Spanish world says “parcha”. )
In Peru, the passion fruit was the most sour I’ve ever tasted. I travel all over eating those things, sometimes right off the tree, and normally they’ve got an acid level similar to grapefruit. Not in Peru! Those bad boys had a kick almost like a lime or a lemon! I don’t know if it was seasonal or if it’s always that way, but it made for a killer sour.

The maracuya sour is on every menu there, right under pisco sour. Looking around I saw more Peruvians drinking that (in my very unscientific informal poll) and after trying one I saw why. It was incredible. I want to add it to my menus here, probably doping our passionfruit juice with citric and maybe malic to replace lime juice.

For NYE, I invented the Lima 75, which was basically a French 75 variant with passion fruit as the acid. It was off the hook. That ones’ going on my menus too.

I asked every Peruvian I could what their favorite pisco is. They often said “acholado” which is like if you asked someone what their favorite whiskey was and they said “bourbon”. I would then follow up by asking what brands and they really loved Porton.

Acholado is what’s typically used for sours. Cuatros Gallos seemed to be the most common brand, and a bottle of their well acholado was like $8 USD and worth every penny. They’ve got some higher end stuff that people drink straight. They seem to like Mosto Verdes and Italias for that. Personally I dig the Quebrantas, but it might only be because Quebranta is so much fun to say. It sounds like a racial epithet or something. (Really though, a good one is delicious, but that’s true of all of the varietals I think.)

People drink a lot of straight pisco too. We were doing laybacks on the dance floor at the wedding I was attending. We did them on NYE and I drunkenly poured some in my nose. Have you ever gotten liquor in your nose? It hurts about 10x more than you would think, and for much longer. The next time a woman complains about childbirth just pour some pisco up your nose and then tell her she doesn’t know what pain is.

The other drink I saw almost everywhere was a chilcano. A chilcano is basically pisco, ginger ale, and juice, usually lime but sometimes passion fruit. I just don’t like ginger ale, and it seemed to always be Canada Dry which is a particularly awful product, but I think with a mild ginger beer (or a good ginger ale if such a thing exists) it might be great. I might even just make my own ginger ale to try to perfect a chilcano.

Another thing that shocked me is they drink pisco and tonic. I don’t know why that’s shocking. I guess maybe because we never drink a brandy and tonic. But thinking about it, why not? The pisco tonics I had were very good. It’s not got all the herbaceousness of a G&T, but the funk of pisco gives it more character and depth than a V&T. They also had some good tonics down there. I saw Q, Fever Tree, and some other brand I wish I recorded. Plus well tonics like we have.

Beyond that I saw a couple pisco punches and lots of original pisco cocktails. It really seems that P&T, chilcanos, and the 2 sours are the bulk of what Peruvians drink when imbibing liquor. And of course they have all the other non-pisco cocktails too, and they drink them, but I didn’t because who goes to Peru and drinks whiskey?

Overall, I have to say my appreciation for pisco is at an all-time high. I’d like to go back to Peru one day and see Porton and a few of the other places it’s made. It’s really a delightful spirit, and they’ve got lovingly-made pisco cocktails everywhere.

Zooming In On Ingredients

Yesterday I was at the Diageo World Class seminar in Cleveland. A question popped up that really illuminated to me why the modern cocktail movement is basically playing in a different league than the old-school, classic cocktailers.

The question was something to the effect of “How many ingredients should be in a great cocktail.” The available answers were 3-4, 5-6, or as many as it takes. There was a handy-dandy live poll to see what people said and probably over 100 people in attendance.

From a classic perspective, the first two answers (which about 80% of people chose) would seem on the surface to make sense. A Manhattan is a fantastic cocktail, and its whiskey, bitters, and vermouth. Three ingredients right? A lot of people like to argue that if a cocktail has 7+ ingredients it’s a jumbled mess, and I think we’ve all had a bartender whose eagerness exceeds his skill level serve us a kitchen sink cocktail that was horrendous once or twice.

But let’s unpack that Manhattan for a second. First off, you have aromatic bitters. Let’s go with good old Angostura. What’s in Angostura? We don’t know exactly, but we know it’s a maceration of several different herbs in alcohol. This recipe from Serious Eats which attempts to replicate it contains 11 flavors (herbs, peels, raisin, sugar) in addition to whatever is in the alcohol. Ango is basically a blend of several different tinctures.

Then we have our sweet vermouth. Sweet vermouth is a lot like bitters. Several different herbs are added to wine, along with caramel for coloring and sweetness. Here’s a recipe from Serious Eats for those inclined to make their own. I count 12 separate ingredients, though perhaps we should ignore water as its already the predominate ingredient in every cocktail. And there are a couple overlapping with the bitters.

But you get my point. Before we’ve even added the rye, we’re probably close to 20 ingredients. And each ingredient itself is probably made of multiple different volatile organic compounds, not to mention all of the flavors in the rye that get through distilling or come from the wood after, but we’ll stay zoomed out a little bit for clarity here.

I’ve recently gotten into making tinctures a little bit. It’s a science I’d like to get down more. Unfortunately, in most states it’s hard to get really high proof neutral alcohol. Everclear has some bad flavors associated with it that make it unsuitable for really anything I think. I got a couple bottles of Technical Reserve, which is basically exactly what I am looking for but expensive and unavailable in most states, from New York to tide me over for a bit and I’ve been playing around with them. I’ll be delving more into it when I get a stable source of low cost, neutral, high proof spirits, which I think will be very soon.


The Future

Long time, no blog. Life has been busy. I was working a couple nights at a bar by my house to get used to bartending, since I want to own a bar one day. I’m glad for the experience. I feel like it’ll save me from a lot of potential mistakes when I go to open my own. It’ll make it easier for me to both hire and train bartenders. There are a lot of little concerns I hadn’t thought of, things as silly as which distributors sell what, that I now know.

But I’m ready to move on. Between my day job and that, it was getting to be too much. It’s not that I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. But after a few months, I felt like I wasn’t learning anymore, and at that point I was just doing it for money. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be a bartender. I want to be a bar owner. It better suits my skills. There are some soft skills that good bartenders excel at that I probably never would. I’ve been called the Human Grumpy Cat on several occasions, but that’s really just how I am when I’m working for someone else.

Todd, the owner of the bar I worked at, is about the best someone else you could work for. Really he’s a great guy. And intelligent. He’s a math teacher by day, which makes him fucking Einstein for a bar owner. I’m not surprised he’s succeeding.

My main contribution to the operation was the cocktail list. I taught a couple of the other bartenders how to properly make some drinks. I added a bunch of classics to the menu. I’d get people who used to drink vodka-soda switched over to a Tom Collins or a French 75, which adds a few bucks a drink to the top line. I got beer drinkers to try cocktails. I had customers raving that it was the only bar in town where they’d order a whiskey sour. I got them infusing liquor, and we made some good strawberry margaritas and blackberry daquiris.

Like all good things, though, it came to an end. I’m leaving after June and starting my own thing.

My good friend, Heather, and I found a guy a couple hours away who refurbishes Airstreams for a living. We went and saw his lot. He had 30 or 40 of them laying around. His dad started the business almost 50 years ago. He worked with his dad, until pop retired, and now works with his son.

We’re planning to buy one and make a mobile bar out of it to cater wedding receptions, etc. I’ll have lots of pics and videos as we move along. Hopefully we’ll be signing on it this week.

Right now I’m working on our competitive advantage. One thing I want to do, that you can’t find anywhere else, is have a great tap system. I plan to make homemade ginger beer on draft for Moscow Mules/Dark and Stormies, etc. I want to do tonic on tap, either our own or Jack Rudy or something. I also want to partner with a few local breweries to have good beer on draft as well.

We’ll do awesome batched cocktails. We’ll have a couple punches. Maybe Manhattans on draft if I can get a nitro system going, which seems easy. Maybe even a rapid barrel aged cocktail served from a barrel for aesthetics.

Bridging the Gap

I recently took an evening job bartending. It is my goal to open a bar in the not too distant future, and I thought I might as well have someone pay me to learn how to do it.

I’ve also been throwing cocktail parties, big and small, at my house a lot. The two, I think, provided me with a learning experience this moth.

See, the bar I work at isn’t what you’d really call a cocktail bar. It sort of tries to be, but the owner just doesn’t know that much about cocktails. He does have lots of whiskey though, like maybe 30 bottles. He also stocks Carpano Antica and Luxardo Cherries, so I can make a mean Manhattan. If you order a Manhattan from any of the other bartenders though, good luck. You’ll likely get something containing Luxardo Liquer and served on the rocks, and so help me God I’ve seen my coworkers put Sprite in an Old-Fashioned.

I’ll fix that in a couple months, but here’s the point. Between that bar and my family Christmas party, I’ve run into a lot of people who think a cocktail is some sweet, fruity vodka beverage served in a martini glass. (Of course they call it a martini, but I won’t get into that here.) At the bar I can at least come up with something. I’ve got all sorts of fruit juices, Fireball, and there’s a bottle of Apple Pucker somewhere. But at home I don’t have any of that, and I’m not stocking it no matter how bad a host that makes me.

What I need to do is learn to bridge the gap. The gap between the “martini” (using of course, the TGI Fridays definition, not the actual martini) and a real cocktail.

See the problem isn’t the bar patron. They’ve been served thirty years worth of Chocolatinis. They’ve probably never had a drink with fresh lime juice in it. No wonder beer has done so well. If given a choice between Bud Light and whatever the hell passes for a “martini” at your chain restaurant, and assuming I can’t just go with water, I’d go with the beer. It isn’t good, but it doesn’t make me gag.

The problem is me. I can’t connect with them. I can’t subtly educate them. It’s not that they can’t appreciate nice things. It’s that I’m so wrapped up in which rye I should be using in my latest cocktail development that I’ve forgotten that 90% of people just aren’t there yet. I’m worried about how to teach people calculus when they haven’t even learned algebra.

So I need to learn to bridge that gap. To take the guy who says “can you make an Appletini?” and find something they’d like. (St Germain is turning out to be quite the crowd pleaser there, as well as Velvet Falernum. I suspect the shrubs I made will help too.) Or what to make for the guy who normally drinks Crown and Coke and thinks any gin drink equivalent to chewing on a pine tree.

I’ll get there. I will. But it’ll take practice and experimentation. I just have to keep in mind that the problem isn’t them. It isn’t that they can’t appreciate good things. It’s that nobody took the time to explain cocktails to them in a not-too-snobby way. To find out what they like and let them acquire tastes for the more flavorful spirits without treating them like imbeciles for not having done so yet.