Pisco Portón's master distiller, Johnny Schuler (far left) with Latin Bites staff members

Pisco Portón’s master distiller, Johnny Schuler, was in Houston on Tuesday night for a remarkable evening of cocktails and farmers' market-driven dinner at Latin Bites. Chef Roberto Castre and his kitchen staff concocted a beautiful, powerful menu while his brother-in-law Carlos Ramos oversaw the fiercely creative and complex cocktails.

Pisco is a clear brandy made from grapes. From that description, you may think it’s more like a wine than a spirit, but pisco's strength says otherwise. Imagine what cognac might be like if it weren’t barrel-aged and you'll have an idea as to what pisco is all about.

Pisco seems to still be seeking a fan base. Many places, especially better bars and restaurants that serve Peruvian or Latin American fare, have at least added a Pisco Sour to the menu. (Indeed, I think there’s a secret Mafia that shuts down your so-called “Peruvian” restaurant if you don’t serve Pisco Sours. It just wouldn’t be right.) The spirit hasn’t really been adopted outside these cuisines, though Schuler—who also founded the Peruvian Academy of Pisco in 2004—hopes that piscos like his own, Portón, will bring more people into the pisco fold.

"First of all,” says Schuler of the brand that lauched in America three years ago, "I want people to know that there are about 150 people in addition to me that are responsible for Pisco Portón’s production. But more importantly, I just want people to try it!"

If you have never tried pisco on its own, you might want to give it a shot (so to speak), for as last night’s cocktails—not one of which was  Pisco Sour—demonstrated, the fairly neutral character of pisco makes it enormously versatile. It has more flavor than vodka but none of the pesky botanicals that give some an aversion to gin. At 43 percent alcohol by volume, it’s more gentle than white rum, so some care needs to be taken to allow it to shine.

My favorite cocktail, called the Chiwilla, was also the simplest. Amaretto seemed to go through a unpopular period after its ubiquitous presence in late '80s and early '90s cocktails, when it seemed as though every other drink included it. However, the amaretto—along with fresh pineapple juice—proved to be perfect partners for pisco, with no one flavor dominating. It's easy enough to try at home, and Latin Bites kindly shared the receipe with us:

Chiwilla

  • 1.5 oz Portón Pisco
  • .5 oz Dissarono Amaretto
  • 2 oz pineapple juice
  • .5 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
  • .5 oz agave nectar
  • 6 cubes pineapple for muddling, plus 6 (small dice) for the bottom of the glass
  • "popping sugar" (for rimming the glass)

Muddle the pineapple chunks with the pineapple juice in the bottom of a mixing glass. Add the remainder of the ingredients. Shake vigorously and strain into a cold martini glass garnished with popping sugar. Add a few pineapple cubes to the bottom of the glass.

The other cocktail that really stuck with me, I think due to its sheer ambition, was a tiny glass of mixed berries and pisco with a balsamic vinegar foam. It was complex and yet still made sense: berries and balsamic are a classic combination.

An outstanding pairings dinner by Latin Bites highlighted the tremendous flexibility of pisco. Above: Green gazpacho with purple cauliflower, dehydrated broccolini, pickled beets and micro mint.

The kitchen’s creations matched the bartending aspirations every step of the way. The dish that made me stop and practically send a news bulletin out on social media was a creamy gazpacho of broccoflower, accented with purple cauliflower, radish, and dehydrated broccolini.

If I have one regret about the pairings dinner, it's that I wish they had started everyone out with small glass of Pisco Portón served neat. It's eminently sippable and if you've never tried some, you might consider remedying that situation soon.

When I wrote up Latin Bites for a different publication back in May 2012, I found some of the dishes quite pleasing, though the small portions and a few execution issues detracted from the experience as a whole. Last night’s dinner and cocktails strongly suggest that it’s time to go back if you haven’t been lately. Latin Bites—just like pisco—has matured and come into its own.

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