Pisco 101 with Duggan McDonnell

I can safely say now that I know more about Pisco than I ever thought I would. More than I ever thought there was to know, actually. And yet, I’m still little more than a novice.

Pisco is, put simply, unaged, grape-based brandy from Peru (or Chile, which we’ll discuss later). Peru puts strict controls over its national spirit: Eight grape varieties may be used to make it, the wine made from those grapes may be distilled only once, it must be rested for three months in neutral vats (commonly steel or plastic, no wood), and no water can be added to dilute it before bottling. Because it can’t be altered in any way, Pisco’s alcohol content typically varies in the 75 to 90 proof range.

It sounds simple, but there is a startling variety of Pisco being made today, and more and more of it is making its way into the U.S.

Recently I sat down for a Pisco primer with Duggan McDonnell, proprietor of San Francisco’s Cantina, and a partner in the new Encanto Pisco project, which we’ll talk about in a bit.

To call McDonnell a Pisco enthusiast would be a vast understatement. He knows Pisco the way Robert Parker knows wine, and in an hour plus of lectures and tasting with him, my mind (and notebook) overflowed with wisdom about the spirit and about Peru, where McDonnell travels frequently to oversee everything from grape harvesting to vat blending for Encanto.

So without further ado, here’s a look at some of the most common Pisco varieties on the market, all of which we tasted (brands tasted are noted parenthetically).

Pure/Single Grape – Quebranta – About 78% of grapes grown for Pisco are Quebranta, making this the most common (by far) type of Pisco sold worldwide. A red grape originally from Spain, this is what anyone who’s had Pisco before has likely tried and will remember: A nose of petrol is most telling, with a musky, coconut husk character that’s hard to miss. But there is sweetness in the mid-palate, a nougat-like character, which doesn’t so much balance the spirit as it does temper it. (Conqueror / $22)

Pure/Single Grape – Torontel – As far away from Quebranta as it gets, this aromatic grape is reminiscent of Riesling or Muscat, making the Pisco thick with perfume on the nose and flowery, lemony notes in the body. That characteristic Pisco funk is still there, but it’s tempered by all those aromatics. Powerful and memorable, but a little goes a long way. (Vinas de Oro / $32)

Pure/Single Grape – Italia – The “most beloved grape in all of Peru” leads to this gentle expression of Pisco, one which lands somewhere between Quebranta and Torontel. It shares more of its DNA with the latter, offering mild aromatics, but still has a semblance of wood, like Quebranta — not of lumber or barrels but rather of tree bark. Hard to pin down its myriad undertones, but overall quite enjoyable. (Vinas de Oro / $32)

Acholado – Put simply, a blend of grapes. The “meritage” of Pisco, if you will. Acholado style gives the producer the most flexibility of all the Pisco styles, but it requires more effort since blending is involved. Encanto (McDonnell’s Pisco) uses three grapes and a solera style of blending, where one season’s distillate is carried over in part to the next, waterfall style, essentially forever, so that all Encantos from here on out will have at least a little of the original Encanto inside. The result? Funky up front, then a distinct sweet, butterscotch finish. Some flower essence is notable, too. This is a journeyman’s Pisco, more complicated than its brethren, but still honest and sincere. (Encanto, $36)

Mosto Verde – The most complicated form of Pisco. I brought this bottle (reviewed here), as it’s one of few Mosto Verdes available in the U.S. Mosto Verde is produced by halting wine fermentation before it’s complete: You get a low-alcohol wine (about 8%) with lots of sweet grape juice leftover. The result is, of course, a sweeter distillate with more acidity to it. It’s a very nice style in comparison to the musty, richer traditional versions, something with more crispness and “snap” to it. Great, but more of a before-dinner drink, due to the sweetness. (Porton, $TBD)

Chilean – Another that I brought. Generally considered lesser Pisco by those in the know, Chile also claims to be the originator of the spirit, though few today go along with this assertion. This Pisco features caramel notes due to barrel aging, is smoother thanks to a second distillation process, and has had water added to level out the proof. Duggan said he tasted glycerin, feeling it was “doctored.” I find that reasonable. This is pleasant to drink, but it bears minimal resemblance to the real stuff from Peru. (Bauza, $19)

How do these work in cocktails? We finally tried Encanto and Porton in the exact same recipes (right down to the amount of ice), side by side, for both a classic Pisco Sour (below) and a Cuzco Mule (like a Moscow Mule, but with Pisco), and I was surprised. I had thought the sweeter Porton would make for a better cocktail, but in both cases it was overpowering, providing a huge amount of spice and too much astrigency, making it hard to drink more than a few sips. The milder Encanto made for a much more balanced cocktail in both cases. While sipping straight I might have preferred Porton, few people are drinking Pisco without extra ingredients… and I wouldn’t blame them. Encanto was the clear winner in both concoctions. Congrats to Duggan and crew for thinking this through and coming up with a recipe that works in a cocktail.

Where the Bar Meets Wall Street

Not content with the prices on the drinks menu? New York’s Exchange turns drink prices into a trader’s delight.

After a brief conversational detour to boast about the size of his manhood, Sean explains how he and his friend from rival bank Citigroup come to have six drinks lined up in front of them. “We’ve been buying Coors Light HARD,” he shouts. “It’s selling at UNPRECEDENTED LEVELS.” The pair started the night on Stella Artois, but switched when the price of the Belgian beer got too racy.

At Exchange, the bar prices scroll along a digital ticker above the bar staff’s heads. Guinness is a bargain, $5 (£3.28) and on the way down. Ketel One vodka has just ticked 75 cents higher, a group down the other end of the bar clearly having gone crazy. The bar food looks pretty stable at the moment, but you’ll not want to take your eye off the market.

“We want the atmosphere to be like the stock market,” says Levent Cakar, one of the owners. “Except, unlike the stock market, nobody is going to have any stress or lose any money.”

Sounds… er, like a really stressful way to spend a night out.

Three Ways to Spend 10 Grand and Get Engaged

Valentine’s Day approaches, and that means bartenders and home mixologists galore will be breaking out the Chambord to create V-Day cocktails.

Or perhaps you’d like to find a way to get drunk and get engaged at the same time. It will cost you, of course — at least $10,000.

The funny thing is this is a bit of a trend. At least three different bars are offering “proposal cocktails” that include jewelry. It’s one-stop shopping for lush lotharios. And here they are.

My favorite recipe (which doesn’t actually include a ring but rather a necklace and some cuff links): Louis XIII Black Pearl cognac, 4 ounces Charles Heidsieck 1981 Champagne Charlie, fresh-squeezed orange juice, apricot puree, Sence rose nectar, two ice cubes, 18-carat gold necklace with Tahitian black pearl, 18-carat gold and stingray-leather Mont Blanc cuff links.

Sounds delish… but after that outlay, we’ll have to elope.

Humphry Slocombe’s Ice Cream For Adults

It’s called a “Secret Breakfast,” but tens of thousands of people seem to know about it: Ice cream from San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe, which operates a tiny Mission shop with about 10 daily concoctions ranging from Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee (better than actual Blue Bottle coffee, IMHO) to Peanut Butter Curry to Pumpkin 5-Spice.

But the real draw here, for many it would seem, is Secret Breakfast, flavored with real whiskey and cut with corn flakes. Get it? Creamy and sweet yet almost overloaded with bourbon flavor (Jim Beam, maybe?), this is the real deal. In fact, it’s so boozy that, unlike Humphry’s other offerings, this one remains a little slushy out of the freezer, since the alcohol stays liquid at that temperature.

But God it’s good. Although I might suggest Rice Krispies in lieu of the corn flakes (and perhaps more of them), this is a whiskey-drinker’s dessert through and through. I enjoyed all of the ice creams I tried (the staff will let you sample them all if you’d like), but this one clearly takes the cake. (I’ve also got a soft spot for the Chocolate Malted Milk, I have to admit.)

It’s also not the only boozy ice cream in the freezer: Slocombe has another confection made with wort, or “pre-beer,” which was unusual and delicious. Also on the menu: Tiny ice cream sandwiches made with foie gras ice cream. Decadent? You better believe it.

Worth the trip, especially if you don’t have to try to spell it!

humphryslocombe.com

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Thoughts on Clock Bar, San Francisco

Clock Bar is a hotel bar, yes. But you know what? I like hotel bars — good ones, anyway. They’re not as loud. Not as crowded. And the drinks that get made are often top notch. Plus you get to talk to random tourists, not just jaded locals. Good times.

After passing by many times, I finally hit Clock Bar last night, in the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco’s Union Square. Have to say, I wasn’t disappointed. The drinks — a grapefruit-tangy-tart Nevada and the San Francisco Sensation, which approximates an Aviation but with the addition of mint — were both inspired.

The liquor selection isn’t huge, but it’s solid (though while I was there two people were turned away because Clock inexplicably doesn’t carry Grey Goose). I finished the evening with hard-to-find 15-year-old Springbank single malt, a perfect whisky that I’d love to have more of.

The snacks are good — the truffled popcorn is legendary; could have done without the cheese popcorn in favor of a double dose of the truffled version — but I longed for a more extensive menu. Still, in San Francisco’s nosh-malnourished bar scene, anything is good.

Yeah, it’s a hotel bar. But it’s a solid one. Go.

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What Does a $20 Bloody Mary Look Like?

Like this.

San Francisco’s Waterbar serves this $20 “Ultimate” Bloody Mary, which largely speaks for itself. The garnishes — bacon and two jumbo boiled shrimp — steal the show, but the Bloody itself is darn good, too. Belevedere Vodka — not my favorite on its own — works fine with this superb blend of tomato juice and spices, and the ratio is spot-on. Drink through the straw or get an extra pepper kick by sipping from the glass, which is rimmed with more spicy goodness.

Be warned: That’s a whole pint of Bloody Mary, and it packs a serious wallop that had me napping for most of the afternoon. Awesome concoction.

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Free Drinks in Your Neighborhood

God, this is a great idea. Myopenbar.com tells you where and when you can get free drinks in New York City, SF, LA, Chicago, Honolulu, or Miami, pretty much every day of the week. Some require purchase of food or a cover charge, some are promo events, and some require lady parts. NYC gets most of the action.

The New York Times has the sordid backstory.

Bar Review: The Four Seasons; Austin, Texas

Spent New Year’s Eve in Austin, Texas this year — specifically at one of the classiest joints in town, the lounge within the Four Seasons hotel, a fixture of downtown Austin and a bar which I’ve visited dozens of times. (I had martinis here before hanging out with Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis, even.)

Normally the bar is quiet and mellow — New Year’s is, of course, a different bag (complete with $25 cover charge). I don’t hold that against them, of course — most nights you’ll find things quiet and upscale here, not chock full of twentysomethings looking for Mr. Right/Rich.

The cocktail menu features a few interesting originals, many driven by the bar’s Texas roots. Tito’s Vodka and Treaty Oak rum figure prominently, as do South-friendly fare like margaritas and mojitos. The favorites of the (long) evening included the Batini Black (Tito’s, blackberries, fresh grapefruit juice, and Champagne) — with the bat-shaped berry and mint leaf garnish really sealing the deal — and the Mojotini, essentially a straight mojito with Prosecco instead of a splash of soda. Its a nice twist and one I may rely on for future mojitos.

Less thrilling: The Raspberry Mojito (mojito plus raspberry puree), which didn’t taste strongly of either of its namesakes, and (worse) the Lychee Martini (Ciroc Vodka and lychee juice), which tasted watery and would have been better with lychee liqueur or St. Germain instead of this thin mix.

I also sampled a couple of Scotches and was downright shocked to see how much was served in a glass (snifter, not an old-fashioned glass). Check out the photo below for some idea… I figure the pours were at least 2 1/2 ounces.

At $11 to $12.50, cocktails aren’t cheap, but hardly out of line for a four-star hotel. There’s also a capable bar food menu, but I was sad to find that the guacamole garnishing various plates was definitely out of a bag, not freshly made (heresy in Texas cuisine). A small knock on an otherwise solid bar — just make sure you order wisely from the cocktail menu.

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Give a Pal a Drink… 3000 Miles Away

Anyone ever try this service? I’d love to hear how well it works…

Step 1 -Select – Choose a friend. Give a drink credit of $1 to $99, good towards a purchase at any Bar or Restaurant!

Step 2 – Style -Style your gift by making a drink suggestion and adding a personal message.

Step 3 – Send -Pay with a credit card to place your order. Your friend will immediately receive a gift notification via email, with instructions on how to redeem their Real Drink!

The credits are claimed to work in “any bar or restaurant in the United States” … and I can think of a few dives in which I’d immediately try to put that to the test.