You know, I thought I had been around the block once or twice and was fairly familiar with most forms of alcohol, but I guess you’re never really too old to learn something new. When the bottle of Pisco Porton arrived, I could only stand there and stare at the bottle in total amazement, WTF? What in the world is Pisco Porton?

It comes in a beautiful and very heavy bottle with a 3 dimensional picture of a hacienda that remotely resembles the Alamo called the Hacienda La Caravedo. Interestingly enough, it also states “established 1684” and whatever this stuff is, it’s imported from Peru. The back of the bottle gives the first clue to the contents: “The authentic Peruvian Pisco”. OK, time to fire up the old computer and Google up “Pisco”.

Pisco is a strong, colorless grape brandy produced in Peru and Chile. It was developed by Spanish settlers in the 16th century as a cheaper alternative to orujo, a brandy that was imported from Spain. Pisco received its name from (DUH) the town of Pisco.  In the late 1550s, the Spanish began to plant and harvest export quality grapes selected to produce wine. Those grapes that did not measure up were discarded or given to the farmers to do with as they pleased and they pleased to use those grapes to distill a brandy-like liquor.In 1641, wine imports from Peru into Spain were banned in order to eliminate competition for any locally produced grape products. Local production of both wine and Pisco continued for local consumption and export to other colonies.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, drunken sailors really took a liking to this stuff since they were the ones transporting it everywhere and they exalted it for its strong taste and ability to quickly lay waste to them. As trade from Peru to the world grew, so did the popularity of Pisco, until it almost equaled wine in quantity as an export. This position was maintained by Pisco until the onset of rum, which won over consumers with lower prices and a softer flavor.

Turns out that Pisco was the original San Francisco treat during the Gold Rush and into the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Pisco was king in San Francisco’s watering holes back then because it was easier to ship Pisco up the coast from Peru than to transport whiskey overland from the East Coast. Newly rich gold prospectors, thirsty sailors, and eventually all of San Francisco developed a robust appetite for Pisco that lasted until the supply was cut off by Prohibition in 1920.

Pisco Punch was the most famous cocktail in San Francisco, made at the Bank Exchange on Montgomery and Washington by famous bar owner, Duncan Nicol. At 25 cents, the drink was preposterously expensive yet incredibly popular.

A true gentleman barkeeper, Nicol had a house rule that two Pisco punches were enough for any patron of his bar. If a customer wanted a third, he had to walk around the long block and come back in to qualify as a new customer. When John Mackay, perhaps the richest man in America at the time, asked for a third, Nicol said no. Mackay grabbed his hat and obediently walked around the block to have his third Pisco Punch.

The good folks who distill this hooch call it a flavorful spirit, more flavorful than vodka and more subtle than tequila but curiously never ever refer to it as brandy. Being a total cognac freak I happen to know a bit about brandy so I guess the proof will be in the tasting.

Upon opening the bottle I am assailed by a grove of lemon trees and the fresh dank earth underneath their branches sprouting mushrooms early in the morning just after the fog has lifted. If this is what Peru smells like, I am on the next plane. This ain’t brandy in the traditional sense of the word; it is Pisco, and now I am beginning to understand. There’s a sweetness to it as well as a syrupy thickness that I find very inviting. This is all backed up by the presence of alcohol lurking in the shadows. Strange, because normally you would get the alcohol up front, yet here, it waits until all the other players have had their moment in the spotlight.

Straight up, it is definitely full bodied in the mouth with hints of licorice and….well, dare I say, fresh baked bread!?!?!? It totally takes me back to of a very, very early Saturday morning in Sonoma when me any best friend Mike where wandering the byways looking for coffee when both of our noses simultaneously picked up the undeniable smell of fresh baked bread and we looked at each other and without saying a single word nodded and pursued that aroma to its source. Much to my amazement, it turned out to be my favorite bakery and the source of all my leavened pleasures, the Artisan Bakery. It was a tiny place with a small counter and a gigantic aroma. We procured two large cups of coffee and two loaves of bread that just moments ago emerged from the oven and were still seriously hot. We sat there and savored that aroma like a grizzled pair of wine connoisseurs opening a bottle of well rested Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. We managed to cajole a couple of plastic knives and a stick of butter and proceeded to sit on their front steps and mercilessly devoured both loaves of bread without hesitation or remorse. That’s what this Pisco tastes like to me, yummy.

It didn’t stop there, after the initial taste I had to try the Pisco Punch, the fabled San Francisco treat of old. I roped my friend Pat into relinquishing part of her fridge and we stewed pineapple parts in simple syrup for a few days and then had fresh lemons on hand. It’s really a simple recipe and you know most of the really simple things I have tried have been far better than the really complicated things I have ended up hating. This stuff was downright awesome! It is the best lemonade I have ever had in my life. It is the best summer drink I have ever had, and I certainly don’t mean to slight my old friend Gin and Tonic.

From not knowing what in the hell this hooch was to embracing it completely I am a total convert. At around $40.00 to $50.00 per bottle it’s up there, but it is definitely worth it. And if you get a bottle for God’s sake stir up a batch of Pisco Punch because it will make your entire summer. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

By George Brozowski

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