The Have-a-Little Pisco Quiz

StoryJames WillimetzComment

Quick! Can you name the four, classic lime-based cocktails from Latin America? Surely you guessed the margarita (Mexico) and the mojito (Cuba), right? What are the other two? Hint: Brazil. Yes, the caipirinha (the “little hillbilly”). And the last one is, obviously, the pisco sour. 

The first two are made from tequila and rum, both well-established spirits here in the U.S. The producers of cachaça (similar to rum) and pisco (grape brandy) are hungry to increase their foothold in liquor stores and bars in the United States (and your home). Cachaça producers have seen a steady increase in the sale of their spirit, and hope to catch a boost from the forthcoming excitement for World Cup 2014 in Brazil. And together with a rapidly growing interest in Peruvian cuisine here in the big cities of the US, Pisco is having its own boom.

“Yeah, we’re selling more pisco,” mixologist Ximena Yrala said. “But I think most Americans don’t know that much about pisco, no? They just don’t know what they’re missing.” This short quiz is a small remedy to this most unfortunate situation. It is inspired by a get-together of pisco-minded Peruvians one afternoon in the Manhattan apartment of photographer Ana De Orbegoso. Latin Lover’s Chris Yong-Garcia and Melissa Franchy were the event’s organizers. Lizzy Asher, a pisco producer, arrived bearing the event’s fire power: two bottles of Macchu Pisco and one of La Diablada, her high-end pisco.

The star of the day, as it turned out, was Ximena, Latin Lover’s favorite pisco mixologist from Panca restaurant in the West Village. She filled us in on, or rather up with, some good pisco drinks she concocted as well as stories of her life in the Peruvian brandy. Born to a pisco-producing family in Ica, Peru’s most famous pisco region, she said her mother sometimes laced her baby bottles with a little pisco to keep her from crying. While she told us of her life, she made wonderful pisco cocktails for us, with cucumber, lime and cranberry juice. They were so refreshing on that hot, blistery day. She is the best pisco host!

Let’s start the quiz. . . . Ready?

How is a pisco sour best made?
a. in a blender       
b. in a cocktail shaker

You’ve seen the scene, right? James Bond suavely looks at the bartender and asks for his martini, “Shaken, not stirred.”

Now picture this. Pisco Porton’s Johnny Schuler, Peru’s pisco ambassador to the world, suavely looks at the bartender and asks for his pisco sour, “From a shaker, not a blender.”  He says a shaken pisco sour tastes better, because it stays icy cold but is not diluted by the ice. A valid point.

However, most Peruvians swear by the blender. It is much easier and more practical, especially if you are making the drinks for a crowd. “With the shaker,” Ximena warns, “if one ingredient is off, the whole drink is off. The blender is more forgiving. ”

The most memorable pisco sours I have had are from a blender. How about we have Johnny on the shaker and Ximena on the blender for a blind-taste challenge?

What is the best way to drink pisco?
a. pisco sour       
b. some other pisco cocktail
c. straight           
d. on the rocks with a splash of water

“There is only one way to drink pisco,” Ximena told me. “And that is, any way you like it.”

The old timers like it straight, “seco y voltea’o” (“bottoms up”). Some of the young timers (like Ximena) like it this way too. “It’s the best way to taste the different grapes,” she said.

A well-made pisco sour, of course, is the king of all pisco drinks and will never be dethroned. It’ll get any party off to a good start.

The chilcano (ginger ale and pisco) is another classic pisco workhorse and quite a happy marriage. It’s the second most popular pisco cocktail in Peru. There are a slew of other hot (cold) new pisco cocktails being offered all the time, just waiting for you to check them out.

My own preference these days is to drink it on the rocks with a splash of water. It seems to opens up the pisco and is less harsh on the stomach. And you still taste the distinctive flavor of each pisco.

In addition to grapes, what else can Peruvian pisco contain? 
a. water       
b. sugar       
c. natural flavors       
d. nothing

When I really got into pisco 23 years ago, I asked a taxi driver in Lima what he liked to drink. “I like pisco,” he said. “But the one I like is made from grapes.” What? Peruvian Pisco can ONLY be made from grapes. “Those were pisco’s dark years,” Ximena remembers. “They had Pisco 3 pasitas, a rum for your stove with 3 raisins in it to justify calling it pisco.” A lot of the pisco sold in Peru was adulterated because it was made mostly from cane sugar. No wonder even Peruvians avoided it. Today, pisco is back and most of the pisco on the market is good and legitimate. It’s one of Peru’s top-selling spirits. It’s become fashionable to take a bottle to a friend, instead of wine.

Is this pisco boom in the USA bona fide?
a. yes       
b. no       
c. maybe

These days in the liquor stores of New York City, you can find a number of very decent bottles of Peruvian pisco offered. At this moment, Astor Wines, one of the biggest in Manhattan, offers Pisco Porton, Macchu Pisco, La Diablada, Barsol, Campo de Encanto. You see less of the Chilean and the bad Peruvian piscos we used to get. The city now has at least three pisco bars. One sign of this boom is the fact that Richard Sandoval, a Mexican who has a chain of high-end Mexican restaurants, has just opened Raymi, a Peruvian restaurant and pisco bar. My question to the producers is: Can they keep up with increasing demand? Previous pisco booms have fizzled out due to a lack of supply.

If I offer my guests some pisco, what kind of a toast can I make?
a. Well, there is always the classic standby, “Salud!” (“Cheers!”). 
b. My dad used to start his parties by having all his guests repeat after him, “Arriba! Abajo! Al centro! Adentro!” (“Up! Down! To the center! Inside!” 
c. My own favorite is, “Pisco bendito, dulce sustento, que haces pa’ fuera, vente pa’ dentro.” (“Blessed pisco, sweet sustenance, whatcha doing out there, come on in.”)

When Ximena is on her deathbed after a long, long life, her IV drip bag in the hospital will be filled with . . .
a. saline solution        
b. pisco

There is a promotional video of a busload of Peruvians who descend on Peru, Nebraska. One of the guys who gets off the bus uses a megaphone to tell the residents, “You are from Peru. You have the right to eat delicious food,” --meaning Peruvian, of course. He could have added, “And you have the right to drink great pisco.” True for Peru, Nebraska. True for the rest of the world. True for you. And you can start exercising this right this way: go to the West Village, find Ximena, ask her to prepare for you whatever pisco cocktail inspires her. Ask her to tell you more about pisco. She’s the perfect pisco host.

Photo by Ana de Orbegoso.