The South American grape brandy offers bartenders so much more than a simple sour
Katie Ingram is a sucker for history. The head bartender of Gastown’s L’Abbatoir is talking pisco, the South American spirit that shows up in sours the world over, and in no time at all, she’s taken us right back to the Ice Age.
“This incredible soil was created back in pre-historic times,” she explains. “As the Ice Age melted away, all the soil shifted, creating these amazing valleys and, once the water settled, this rich, alluvial soil made from clay and gravel was left.”
To that soil, throw in hot, dry conditions, just a little rain, and the result is eight varieties of grapes so bursting with natural sugar, that one distillation is enough to produce pisco, a unique, completely terroir-driven grape brandy.
Produced only in Peru and Chile, pisco is subject to different guidelines in each country. In Peru, distillers can choose from eight grape varietals, but may only distill once and not barrel-age. Bottling must be at proof, allowing no dilution with water or the addition of any sugar or other additives. Over the border in Chile, multiple distillations are allowed, as is barrel aging and dilution, but there, pisco may only be produced from three varieties of grapes.
“It’s floral and spicy and green,” Ingram notes. “It has this beautiful green grape, green plum, earthy nose to it. You get all that up front on the palate, but then it finishes spicy and hot.”
If your only experience of pisco is through the egg white froth and fresh lime of the famous sour, you are, Ingram suggests, missing out on some serious cocktail possibilities.
That heat was upfront in pisco’s original moniker, aguardiente — fiery water — and offers bartenders options when using it as a cocktail base. If your only experience of pisco is through the egg white froth and fresh lime of the famous sour, you are, Ingram suggests, missing out on some serious cocktail possibilities.
At L’Abbatoir, the spirit has shown up in many guises. There was the Mr. Pisco, a dry and bitter twist on the Negroni that involved a splash of rosé, Campari and Yellow Chartreuse. Then there’s the nod to Brit band the Kaiser Chiefs — I Predict a Riot — that calls on a veritable cacophony of herbs and spice infusions in the form of Sacred Spiced English Vermouth, ginger, Yellow Chartreuse and both Kensington and Condesa bitters from Bittered Sling.
“It’s spicy and gets right up in your face,” Ingram laughs. “It’s like, ‘Wow! What just happened?’”
Now, to mark the coming of spring, she is taking pisco back to its source: the rich, fertile earth. In Inca tradition, the goddess of the earth — Pachamama — was second only importance to the supreme deity, the sun. She remains the highest divinity in Andean culture today.
“She is in charge of planting and harvesting, and if she feels like it, she’s going to cause earthquakes,” Ingram notes. “The artwork that depicts Pachamama shows this beautiful woman holding the earth, surrounded by flowers.”
El Gobernador pisco forms the base of Ingram’s Pachamama cocktail.
“It’s half Rose Muscatel grapes, which are more floral and aromatic, and half Muscatel of Alexandria, which are still floral, but dry.”
Elderflower liqueur is employed to bring out both the floral notes and the candied fruit present in the pisco.
“You see pisco being able to hit all these different flavour points.”
The Pachamama also uses leading products made by women — Amaro Nonino (produced by Italy’s Nonino sisters), and Western Haskap bitters from local cocktail maven, Lauren Mote — to fully honour its inspiration.
It is complex, nuanced and oh so pretty.
As Ingram says: “Girl power in a glass.”
AUTHOR’S NOTES: In 1889, Rudyard Kipling, described pisco as, “Compounded of the shavings of cherub’s wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters.”
—by Fiona Morrow