Bars in South Florida introduce a long-standing Peruvian liquor

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My father moved to the states a full year before my mother, brother or I did. He used to ask my mom to send him supplies from Peru — food and medicine he couldn't afford or wasn't sold here. One of those staples was pisco.

The hard liquor is distilled in copper pots from a variety of grapes that grow along the coast of Peru. It tastes dry and earthy, much like the dusty deserts where it's been made since colonial times.

Peru's flagship spirit has been in my life since I was very young, growing up in Lima, roughly 150 miles north of the birthplace of pisco. The men in my family have downed pisco sours at parties for as long as I can remember, and during her last days, my great-grandmother used to sip the stuff after dinner.

Then, at 11 years old, I came to Miami. The absence of pisco in suburban Kendall wasn't the first thing I noticed in the move, but it was clear the cornerstone of our drinking culture was not well represented in America.

Visiting relatives continued to bring bottles of the clear grape brandy to my dad, who finished them off at alarming speeds, considering he was drinking from a limited stock. It wasn't like he could go out to dinner and order a Piscola (with Coke). The drink was unknown to this American world.

Until now.

The cocktail renaissance has seen old and uncommon spirits become delicacies.

Pisco drinks are now popping up in local bars. Pisco Viejo Tonel, a popular Peruvian brand, has started importing products through its Coral Springs office, and even Grand Marnier is producing its own pisco brand — Kappa Pisco, which is served in bars from Miami to Palm Beach.

Ray Ramos, award-winning mixologist at the Living Room in the W Fort Lauderdale, says pisco's "seen some popularity recently in South Florida because of the Latin culture here. People like to have a taste of home."

Ramos' bar serves a traditional pisco sour — with egg whites and angostura bitters — and a pisco Manhattan, both made with the Peruvian Pisco Porton brand. He says the hotel has those drinks on the menu due to high demand from its Latin American guests.

Recently, Ramos improvised a cucumber-basil pisco sour for me. A bar guest saw him adding egg whites to the mix and asked what he was making. Ramos explained to the man, who was on a business trip from Dallas, that pisco is a traditional Peruvian spirit distilled from grapes.

So, not everyone is familiar with pisco yet. As of now, it's only present in trendy establishments or family-owned Peruvian restaurants.

"It's a distinguished, sipping spirit," Ramos says. "It's more in high-end restaurants, but I imagine [distributors are] trying to reach that market in between."

That pisco is served in high-quality bars isn't as surprising as seeing my dad's cookout liquor of choice shaken and stirred with ingredients such as tarragon syrup, Grand Marnier or honeydew consomme.

Blackbird Ordinary in Miami serves the Condor, a pisco and Grand Marnier cocktail with pineapple, aptly named after the carrion bird from the Andes.

In Boynton Beach, Sean Iglehart, at Sweetwater Bar and Grill, serves the Aphrodisiac cocktail, made with the Chilean Kappa Pisco, Tawny port and Aphrodite bitters. He's a crusader of the South Florida cocktail scene who tries to introduce his customers to new spirits.

"I'll throw in these off-the-wall kind of things," he says "because we have a lot of regulars, and they try the regular cocktails, but they're always looking for new things."

Iglehart says the Chilean Kappa is his favorite pisco. Full disclosure: Peruvians and Chileans have an ages-old feud about the nationality of pisco.

Although the spirit is named after the province of Pisco on the southern coast of Peru, where most of Peruvian pisco is made, Chile produces its own. Iglehart's grandfather was Chilean, so we disagree on the authenticity of Kappa.

"It's one of the best piscos I've ever tried," he says. "I find it earthier, or smoother."

He admits the Peruvian Pisco Porton is also a top-quality brand, but regardless of its origins, the taste of pisco is unlike anything else in the repertoire of American cocktails.

"The American palate is very sweet," Iglehart says. "Pisco is more earthy. I sub it in a lot of times for rum, in mojitos or caipirinhas. When you start putting in mint, sugar and lime, you kind of mask a lot of the earthy tones, but it will still taste like pisco."

The hint of citrus in the aftertaste lets drinkers know they're not getting the Captain Morgan they're used to.

My dad tries new things with the pisco he still gets from his sisters, when they visit. But he wouldn't want to desecrate his classic cocktails with fruity mixers or curious herbs. He's been drinking them for too many years.

The Lush Life blog is your guide to what's shakin' at South Florida's best happy hours and drinking emporiums. Check it out at SouthFlorida.com/lushlife.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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