By Hope S. Philbrick
Master Distiller Johnny Schuler owes his current position as one of world’s foremost pisco authorities and advocates to a coincidence.
In 1977 he was asked to step in as a judge at a pisco competition after the other judges became too inebriated to continue their duties. At the time, Schuler was a well-established chef and restaurateur in Lima, Peru, who knew little about pisco but was known to have a discerning palate for fine wine. After sipping nearly 80 different varieties of the spirit, he was surprised to discover the diversity of pisco. From that day forward, he dedicated himself to learning everything he could about it.
A founding member of the National Tasters Guild of Peru, he was approached by Portón Founders Bill and Brent Kallop to create a new brand of ultra premium pisco for the U.S. market. As master distiller, he oversees brand development and marketing as well as every aspect of production at the Hacienda La Caravedo distillery in Ica, Peru.
I recently met with Schuler when his travels brought him to Atlanta, Georgia, to talk about pisco and other Peruvian treasures.
Q. What are the basic distinctions of pisco?
A. By Peruvian law, to officially be called pisco a spirit must be distilled from fermented grape juice made from one (or a blend) of eight designated grape varietals. And these grapes must come from five coastal valley regions of Peru: Moquegua, Tacna, Arequipa, Ica and Lima. It is distilled to 76 to 96 proof and cannot be altered once it comes out of the still—so, for example, water cannot be added to lower the proof nor can it be aged in oak. Those requirements are the singularities of pisco, though there are other grape spirits such as brandy, cognac, armagnac and grappa.
Because pisco is not aged in oak, you taste the fruit—beautiful flavors of peach, banana, mango, rose petals, pineapple, green apple, coffee and more. The natural aromatic structure is not hidden.
Q. What grapes do you use for Portón?
A. Portón is an acholado, or blended pisco, made from Quebranta, Albilla and Torontel grapes; each chosen for its inherent traits. Our grapes are always hand selected, hand harvested and our pisco is hand crafted.
Portón is a mosto verde, a different way of distilling from must (grape juice) that has not completely fermented. This keeps some of the natural grape sugars from converting into alcohol. By using sweet wine that sweetness is transformed into brilliancy and smoothness. Portón is the first mosto verde pisco to be widely available in the U.S.
The sweet juice is fermented for 7 to 10 days in non-reactive stainless steel containers. We use wild yeast; it does not need to be added since it grows naturally on the grapes. After distillation, the pisco rests in cement containers called cubas de guardia for five to eight months.
When you taste our pisco, it’s smooth, round, velvety. It’s warm without burning. It’s wonderfully elegant and sublime on its own, so imagine what it can do in a cocktail!
Q. Portón is relatively new to the market. How is it being received?
A. We have won 28 medals in the last year, both nationally and internationally.
Q. I’ve not yet traveled to Peru. As a restaurateur and chef, can you tell me a bit about the culinary scene in Lima?
A. Everything grows in Peru, there are 98 different geographical ‘floors’ and the seasons vary from the coast to the jungle to the Andes. Did you know the potato is originally from Peru? We have 3,400 registered varieties! You’ll find potatoes and rice used together in the same dish in Peru. Quinoa also comes from Peru. Peruvian menus reflect the natural bounty of the earth’s oceans, land and winds. We’re big fish eaters dating way back to the Incas. Conquerors brought cows, chickens and more and you can find culinary influences from the Arabs, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Afro-Peruvians and more—our cuisine is a blend of about ten different food cultures. What you eat in one area will likely differ from what is eaten 200 miles away; there are about 20 different gastronomies in Peru. Lima is the gastronomic capital of Peru.
Q. Is your distillery open to tourists?
A. Yes, it is a tourist destination. It’s free and located about 300 kilometers south of Lima, on the way to The Nazca Lines. We are located in what is the equivalent of the Napa Valley in Peru, near the Port of Pisco, for which pisco is named. The Hacienda La Caravedo house is pictured on the bottle.
-Photos Courtesy Pisco Portón