Take one part pub crawl and one part contest mixed vigorously with 10 bartenders on a mini bus, and what do you get? One spirited competition to determine who makes the best drink using pisco, the South American brandy making a comeback in the United States.
Long a fixture in liquor cabinets and bars in Peru and Chile, pisco is popping up in the United States amid an obsession with craft cocktails. From January to July, export sales of the South American grape brandy grew to $2.3 million, up 139% over the same period in 2010, fueled by increased sales in the United States, Peruvian news agency Andina reports.
"Pisco is fruity and aromatic, so there's a lot of room to play around with other spirits and fruits to bring out different flavors," said Brent Gatehouse, who tends bar at Italian restaurant Ecco.
"People are always looking for the next exotic spirit. They don't want to just drink vodka sodas or martinis anymore."
As pisco's popularity grows in the United States, its country of appellation remains a topic of dispute in South America. Pisco grapes are grown in Chile and Peru, and both Andean nations have adopted it as a national spirit. The dispute has played out in numerous decrees and regulations from both countries, with Peru claiming the historic upper hand and boasting a commitment to making it the old-fashioned way. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine has urged the two countries to make nice and work together toward a common solution. Mainly, the outcome has been aggressive international marketing campaigns from both countries.
Pisco's origins in the United States are less controversial. It first arrived in San Francisco in the 1850s, when it was easier to ship a batch from Peru than to transport whiskey overland from the East Coast.
The owner of San Francisco's Bank Exchange popularized the cocktail as pisco punch until Prohibition came along in the 1920s and ruined the fun. Pisco has resurfaced in recent years in the United States, most commonly as pisco sours, an American adaptation of the whiskey sour, made with lime juice, simple syrup, egg whites and a dash of bitters. Pre-packaged pisco sour mix also exists for those less inclined to do the legwork.
The president of the Peruvian Exporters' Association credits strategic partnering with boosting international pisco sales, specifically highlighting distillery Hacienda La Caravedo, the oldest working distillery in the Americas. Pisco Porton, sponsor of last month's competitive bar crawl, is made at Hacienda La Caravedo.
Indeed, the contest's participants welcomed the respite from the monotony of pouring shots and mixing martinis. The winning entry from Ecco's Gatehouse featured a concoction of papaya, plum bitters, orange rind and pepper. Calling his creation "respiracion de Inca," Gatehouse topped it off with a squeeze from half a piece of dragonfruit, dropping the fruit's carcass into each cup before serving it to his eager peers.
Another worthy offering from Empire State South was dressed up with lavender sprigs from the restaurant's urban garden. Erik Alsandor of Publik Draft House mixed pineapples, Bartlett pears and honey, garnished with plantains, as the self-described "blue-collar" entry among the "bourgeois b*****ds" from the rest of the entrants.
In a startling display of bravura, the folks at Iberian Pig surprised everyone with a life-sized ice sculpture of a bottle of pisco that spouted punch.
The owners of H. Harper Station, the venue with the misfortune of being the last on the boozy bar crawl contest, marinated peaches in pisco, yellow chartreuse and housemade ginger beer to create its own "peach exchange" in a nod to the first purveyor of pisco punch.
"It's too bad, but we enjoyed the process of coming up with a recipe," said H. Harper owner Jerry Slater. "Pisco is a lot of fun to work with. And sharing it with others who truly appreciate your effort is always a good time."