On the pisco trail: One bartender’s mission to raise awareness of lesser known spirits

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Daniel Guillen, beverage director at La Duni

Daniel Guillen, of La Duni, has a passion he needs to share

I have seen pisco gone tiki and pisco gone Southern and pisco show grace under pressure. I have seen pisco gone wild, hooking up with a variety of unlikely dance partners: watermelon, smoked balsamic, Champagne, hefeweizen, chocolate bitters, balsamic puree…. and this was all in the span of two nights.

Who knew pisco had it in her? Yes, pisco, the diaphanous Peruvian (and occasionally Chilean) brandy dating to the 16th century. When you think of it in a cocktail, you think of the Pisco Sour, and then… um, the Pisco Punch, and… well, who really thinks about pisco anyway?

Daniel Guillen does. He’s the 24-year-old beverage director at La Duni, and having been bitten by the craft-cocktail bug, he wanted to get other bartenders excited about lesser known spirits and liqueurs. Being Peruvian, he wanted to start off with pisco, and to show that there was more to this smooth, sweet eau de vie than the Pisco Sour.

With the help of Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough – president of the North Texas chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild – he came up with an idea: a weekly series of neighborhood-themed bar crawls, where bartenders at each stop would showcase the featured spirit in a different cocktail or three.

Pisco drink at Joyce and Gigi's

A Pisco Porton cocktail at Joyce and Gigi's

Tonight, the third leg of the Pisco Trail continues, and you’re invited. Never had pisco before? Pisco Porton, the project’s initial sponsor, wants to make sure you have your chance.

“Let’s have bartenders show how they can use pisco,” Guillen says. “Maybe instead of gin in a Negroni, or instead of vodka in a Cosmopolitan…. If mezcal is acceptable, I don’t see why pisco shouldn’t be.”

Parts of the Thursday night neighborhood crawls are even walkable. And anyway, the point is not to finish off every cocktail, but to sample, experience and move on.

Pisco Porton

Pisco Porton, the project's initial sponsor

The Pisco Trail series started two weeks ago in Knox-Henderson, then moved on to Uptown last week. This week the tour will target the North Park/Mockingbird Station area.

At Knox-Henderson’s Victor Tango, bartender Ivan Rimach made the tangy, refreshing Chilcano, a Peruvian cocktail little known in the U.S.: pisco, ginger soda, lime and bitters. “People would say it’s the Moscow Mule of Peru, but it’s really the Horse’s Neck of Peru,” Guillen said, citing a little known classic.

Next door, at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, beverage director Chase Streitz gave pisco a Southern spin, mixing it with Champagne and Chambord black raspberry liqueur in a sweet drink he called Pisco In The South.

“We really enjoyed trying a spirit we didn’t know anything about,” Streitz said. “We’d never worked with pisco before.”

“That’s the basis of this whole thing,” Guillen replied.

Pisco cocktail at Sunset Lounge

At Sunset Lounge, a pisco caipirinha

Across the street was the Dram, where bartenders Jasin and Ryan each threw down a couple of impressive pisco variations, my favorite taste being the drink I dubbed Down With The Brown – a mix of pisco, vermouth, chocolate bitters and vanilla extract finished off with a flamed orange twist.

The Pisco Trail concluded its Knox-Henderson crawl at Porch and the Old Monk, then resumed last week in Uptown with stops at Joyce and Gigi’s, Sunset Lounge, P/S, Standard Pour and Tate’s.

At Sunset, Nico Ponce tossed out an insane barrage of at least a half-dozen tiki-themed pisco drinks to sample, including a pisco Mai Tai. Among my favorites was the Hawaiian Room, a blend of pisco, Applejack and Sailor Jerry spiced rum that started as sweet tea and finished like a vanilla wafer.

Guillen seemed pleased. “Before I hit this place, I never thought Pisco could go tiki,” he said. “Before we hit Sissy’s, I never thought it could go Southern.”

Rocco Milano, P/S

P/S' Milano turned a Pisco Sour into foam

At P/S, head barman Rocco Milano started things off with the Pisco Espuma, a Pisco Sour in pressurized form spewed foam-like into a spoon. Then came the Peruvian Shandy, a group favorite in which he married pisco with lemon, simple syrup and Franconia Hefeweizen. “The acidity plays particularly well with the hefeweizen,” he said, “and helps the pisco come out in the finish.”

Standard Pour was an experience: Brian McCullough started with Pisco Kid Rides Again Into The Fiery Sunset, an elaborate production involving a cedar-chip-smoked coupe filled with pisco, pineapple shrub, smoked balsamic, lemon, Peychaud’s and egg white, followed by Armando Guillen’s (Daniel’s brother) drink, the Incan Resemblance, one of the most beautiful and tasty drinks on the tour.

At Tate’s, J.W. Tate dropped the perfect digestif with the Muy Criollo, mixing pisco with Bonal (a French aperitif wine) and three kinds of vinegary shrub.

Creating smoked-cedar-chip cocktails at Standard Pour

Standard Pour's McCullough employed cedar-chip-smoked cocktail coupes to create his epically named drink

What Guillen hopes is that bartenders will learn to appreciate the products he hopes to showcase and start adding them to their inventories, and thus, their repertoire, which in turn will enrich the customer experience.

“I hope people will experience out-of-the-box cocktails instead of just the classics,” Guillen says. “That’s what bartenders get excited about. And if you’re adventurous, which you should be every time you go to a bar, you’re going to have a good experience.”

Join the tour tonight (Thursday 3/28) if you can. Stops are planned at La Duni Northpark starting at 7:30, with Bowl and Barrel, Central 214, The People’s Last Stand and Smyth to follow. I’ll hope to tweet along the way with the hashtag #piscotrail, so feel free to follow at @typewriterninja to figure out the tour’s whereabouts.

At the end of the series, I’ll post my favorite pisco cocktails from along the way.

— Marc Ramirez, @typewriterninja

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