Lesson Five: Brown Spirits

Chapter Two: We Don’t Need No Stinking Barrels

Is That All There is

Well, no. But that’s most of the aged, wine-based spirit you need to know about, unless you are traveling to other countries and then just buy something unusual and send us your notes later. Oh, and we accept bottles too. But UNAGED wine-based spirits are another thing(s) altogether. Many of them are interesting only to a handful of geeky bartenders or homesick emigres, but categories such as Pisco, Marc and Grappa have carved out spots on the back bars of America and the world, and sometimes populate extensive, high end pages of wine lists and drink menus.

Family Feud

The first challenge in explaining Pisco is to contend with the fractured history of the spirit: Peruvians say Pisco is theirs; Chileans insist they should share equally in that history, reputation and at a minimum, the name. Our recommendation is that you leave the room when this argument breaks out but don’t let it discourage you from trying Pisco from either country. Unquestionably, Peru owns a longer history with the spirit; we hope our Chilean friends will forgive us for saying that until recently the best quality Piscos have typically been Peruvian as well.

But history, Marx be damned, is not destiny. Chile has been making more Pisco than Peru for several decades; if some of it has been pedestrian, it has helped popularize the spirit nonetheless. And there are new Chilean Piscos that are cut from fine cloth, perhaps finer than many Peruvian brands. In truth, there is little about Pisco that is settled today; its newfound popularity has fueled a regeneration of quality throughout its traditional areas. Even today, we can type (and we are) that Chilean Pisco tends to be more modern, perhaps cleaner and more elegant than Peruvian styles; Peruvian Piscos can carry far more flavor and character. But if that seems true today, there are too many exceptions to ask you to hold on to that as useful information in the future. Like so much having to do with quality, it depends.

We’ve already explained that Pisco is grape-based spirit. The story of Cognac and Armagnac told above little focuses upon the grape (Ugni Blanc) or grapes While Cognac is neatly a monoculture, Armagnac will occasionally use Folle Blanche, Colombard, or even Baco Blanc, an under-respected but very age worthy hybrid variety. Traditional Pisco has utilized many actors and has sought the complexity that such a blend can achieve. Today Peruvian Pisco fastens upon individual grapes or styles and there are sometimes stunning results.

Many of the grapes utilized for Pisco on either side of the Peruvian/Chilean border are Muscat varieties or related to the Muscat grape, itself a very floral and aromatic variety. The Peruvians use the term Acholado to describe a blend of aromatic and non-aromatic varieties; the aromatic varieties are related to the Muscat grape. The non-aromatic varieties include the widely grown Quebranta, an offshoot of the Mission grape, the grape that helped establish winemaking throughout the Americas centuries ago.

If Chilean Pisco is often somewhat neutral in style it should be no surprise that Chileans distill their Pisco with continuous stills. Peruvians use pot stills and their Piscos can demonstrate a great deal of character as a consequence.

Grappa: More Than Just a Pretty Bottle

Forgive us if we are a bit testy about grappa; there are too many who disrespect this noble category. Maybe they shouldn’t be blamed: grappa has only shed its rustic mantle for finer clothes in the last few decades. But is that so different from the recent history of Italian wine in general? Well, since we have asked this rhetorical question, allow us to also answer it: No!

Led by such high quality producers as Nonino and Poli (as well as others perhaps less visible in the U.S. market), the 1980’s saw a new style of grappa: clean, balanced, a true distillation of the grape variety or varieties into a compact expression of each one’s true nature.

Sure, the past was ugly. Burton Anderson, perhaps the best writer on the Italian scene ever, depicted grappa production in his seminal 1971 book Vino with a single photo showing a tractor scraping grape skins into an underground silo with the caption: “the fine art of grappa making”. Snap, biotches!

He speaks far kinder words of grappa today. Better techniques, better equipment, better knowledge; those have all contributed to uplifting the race of Italian grappa. Most important of all those improvements has to be considered the rapidity with which producers move the spent pomace (the leftover grape skins and seeds after pressing the wine or juice) into the still. As Anderson’s photo showed, in the past producers might have waited months. For today’s best grappaioli, no more than an hour or two is allowed to lapse; haste allows the retention of the grape’s most evanescent qualities, and prevents the growth of any extraneous aromas.

One quick note: while many books describe grappa as a distillate made from grape pomace mixed with water, that’s a pile of poo. No water additions are allowed. The word Grappa is supposed to describe an Italian product distilled only from grapes pulled straight out of the press.

The French have a version called Marc, but it doesn’t really have the same set of rules, usually doesn’t taste that much like the original grapes, and might just as likely be aged in old barrels as sold as an unaged product. Bit expensive. Probably just for the enthusiast.

Review this video to see BAR Master Ryan Maybee use Brandy in a variety of Drinks.

Pisco Sour

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Pisco Sour.

Pisco Sour
In mixing glass;
Strain 1 egg white
1.5 oz of Pisco
3/4 oz Lemon juice
1 oz simple syrup
Dry Shake
Add ice shake well
Strain into cocktail glass
Garnish with 4-5 dashes of Peychaud Bitters

Ready for Review?

Now you can click on the “Lesson Five – Brown Spirits, Whiskey” button below to continue your lessons on how alcohol beverages are made.