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Here’s a bit of a quiz for you to try: what in the world is Pisco, what is Porton, what are acholado, quebranta and torontel? I suppose either being from Peru or being able to speak Spanish might help solve this quiz but reading the next few paragraphs will do just as well.

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 even 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.

Porton, in Spanish means main door or gate but in this case it refers to the company that was founded in 2011 to produce Pisco. Acholado is one of three types of Pisco: puro (pure), Acholado (a blend) and Mosto Verde (green must). Quebranta is the strongest of all pisco grape varietals while torontel grapes are known for their expressive and intense aromas.

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.

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Upon opening the bottle, I get a liberal dose of citrus, lemons, menthol, licorice and oranges but little or no alcohol, which, for a spirit that is distilled to 86 proof, is saying quite a lot. On the palate, I get the citrus up front followed by the sweetness of oranges and a touch of vanilla. The finish leaves the smooth taste of grapes and citrus and white pepper in my mouth for a medium amount of time. Although this spirit is considered to be of the brandy family, it is unlike any traditional brandy I have tasted. It has a broader palate of flavors than brandy. It also has a slight smokiness that is quite natural, as by law, Pisco cannot be aged in barrels but must be aged in vessels that will not impart any flavor to the final product. I really like this Pisco and will definitely include it in my bar at home.

Do yourself a favor and make a Pisco punch; you will not regret it. Simply stew pineapple parts in simple syrup for a few days and then have 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.

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.

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By George Brozowski

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