Johnny Schuler, Master Distiller for Portón, was recently in Houston for various events and to further promote Pisco Portón to the United States market.
Pisco is a white spirit distilled from fermented grape juice, essentially wine, and is the national drink of Peru where Pisco Portón is made. Gloria and I were invited to meet with Mr. Schuler and since Gloria is also from Peru, we gladly accepted the invitation. Gloria and I have been to Peru and visited Ica, one of the five allowed regions to make pisco, and visited a pisco bodega. With the introduction of pisco to me by Gloria and her family, we were very familiar with the spirit.
By Peruvian law which refers to a technical norm, there are certain requirements an alcoholic beverage must meet in order to legally be called pisco. First, the spirit must be made from one or a blend of eight specific grape varieties grown in Peru. It must also be distilled to proof and no water, artificial flavoring, wood aging, or additives may change the pure essence of the distillate.
Pisco is divided into three main categories: puro, acholado, and mosto verde. A puro is made from only one type of grape while an acholado is made from a blend of grapes. Mosto verde has to do with fermentation. Pisco made in the mosto verde method are made from must (grape juice) which has not completed fermentation and are generally regarded as the highest quality pisco. Pisco Portón is both an acholado and a mosto verde.
Johnny Schuler is one of the foremost pisco authorities in the world having dedicated much of his life to setting the standards for excellence in the pisco industry. His passion for pisco is very infectious as you listen to his knowledge and stories of the spirit.
We met Schuler at Triniti and sat down for an interview with him.
Schuler started by saying, “We’re trying to convince Americans again that pisco is a wonderful spirit. It is really, really special for a lot of reasons. The most important reason is because it’s good. If it wasn’t good, I wouldn’t be selling it. If I wasn’t convinced that it is the best un-aged, un-wooded brandy cognac in the world, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. First it is pisco. Second it is Peruvian.”
The headquarters for Portón happens to be in Houston. The men behind the project are Houstonians, Bill and Brent Kallop. Bill Kallop married a Peruvian woman and he decided to help Peru bring pisco to the United States. On August 4th, 2009, in Bermuda, he approached Johnny Schuler to be part of the project.
Schuler said, “I had a very sound reputation of my knowledge of pisco. I had written several books. I have a TV program on the air now in Peru for about six years prime time and YouTube called Por Las Rutas del Pisco. Bill said, ‘You’re the expert and I have the financial requirements, so why don’t we join forces and let’s go for this.’ I said, ‘I think it’s a wonderful idea. Let’s do it.'”
We had not heard of Pisco Portón until recent years (it was introduced to the United States in 2011) and did not remember seeing it in Peru, so we asked if Pisco Portón is sold in Peru.
Schuler replied, “Portón is the largest ultra-premium pisco sold in Peru today. It is amazing the success we have gotten. We’re very proud to where we have become very quickly. Several universities are using us as an example on how a product in such a short time without a fixed advertising budget at all, reached the threshold we reached. One of the distributors in Lima told me, ‘You did it Johnny.’ I said why? ‘Three years ago, the gift of a man to his friend for his birthday was a bottle of Black Label. Today, the gift a man gives to his friend for his birthday is a bottle of Portón.'”
Schuler continued, “One of our main lines of sale is individualized bottles. We take the label with the house out and we put the logo of your company: banks, lawyers, oil companies. You pay for the label and I’ll put the label with whatever you want on it. You want your girlfriend, your daughters, your baby boy was just born, whatever you want. So we opened a new branch called ventas corporativas (corporate accounts). This year from the beginning of January, we’re planning all the sales for December for all these companies who give gifts to their clients. So we are proudly the largest ultra-premium pisco sold in Peru, but more than that we are the largest ultra-premium sold in Chile.”
That segued nicely into one of the questions we had prepared. How is pisco from Chile different than pisco from Peru?
“Several things,” Schuler replied. “Basically both are in the category of being very special because they are not grappas, so they are not made from pomace, the stems, skins, seeds, and whatever is left over from wine production. Both piscos, pisco from Peru, and whatever they make in Chile, is made from wine. But unlike Peru, Chile’s climates do not allow grapes to achieve enough alcohol in the distillation of the product, so they have to add pure alcohol to the base product, and then they lower it with water which is how every whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, and tequila in the world is made. That’s the way it is made, but it’s against the law in Peru to add water. Because the conditions of the deserts in Peru give the grapes so much energy and sugar that at first distillation, we reach 43-46% alcohol. So pisco in Peru is distilled to proof. In Chile it is not. Right there is a big difference.
“Now geographically and historically, I’m a serious collector of maps of Peru and have a couple hundred or more. The oldest one I have is from 1570. In all my maps there is one common element in all of them, the port of Pisco in Peru. In Chile, they have a town that is called Pisco Elqui. In 1936 by decree, La Unión was changed to Pisco for “strategic reasons.” What would Chile’s strategic reasons be in 1936 to change the name of a city to the name of a city that did not exist in Chile? The name does not belong to them. The product does not belong to them. And they don’t make the same juice. End of argument.”
After distillation, Pisco Portón rests in containers called cubas de guardia for five to eight months in order to let the flavors develop. These containers are made from cement because it is non-reactive and will not allow other flavors into the pisco as a wooden barrel would. We asked Schuler if storing pisco in cement is part of the Peruvian law.
His answer was, “No, that’s part of Johnny Schuler’s way of doing things. I learned by 20 years of visiting small producers between Lima and Tacna because I was writing a book. I wanted to know why one was better than another. I was not interested in becoming a distiller at the time.
“The first thing I hate is plastic containers. Today unfortunately because of cost, most of the Peruvian producers are using plastic containers which will contaminate the aroma for sure. So I became pisco and said, ‘I come out of the still. First I was a liquid and was very tranquilo (tranquil). Then you put fire under me, you burn the daylights out of me, turn me into steam, made me run through pipes, and then you throw me into this coil. In cold water you freeze me to death and make me liquid again, and now you’re going to throw me into a stainless steel tank. You know what? I’m going to clamp up because I’m not going to give you anything because it’s too cold.’ So I talked to pisco and I asked her, ‘So what would you like?’ And she told me, ‘Why don’t you make me more comfortable so that I can relax and I can mature?'”
Schuler then made me touch a metal knife and then touch the concrete wall. There was a definite difference in temperatures and I could see what his point was, and why he uses cement cubas de guardia.
Triniti’s bartender than came by with three cocktails which she had made. She explained it was a cross between a Pisco Sour, the most popular pisco cocktail, and an Aviation. The combination was very light and fluffy, and very good!
Speaking of Pisco Sours, Schuler explained how he orders his Pisco Sours. A Pisco Sour is made from 3 parts of pisco, 1 part simple syrup, and 1 part lime juice with egg white and a sprinkle of Angostura bitters. The strongest aromatic structure in a Pisco Sour is either the egg or the lime. He wants a Pisco Sour where he can taste the pisco, so he orders them with two measures of Quebranta pisco and one measure of Italia pisco. Italia is extremely aromatic and gives the taste back into the Pisco Sour.
There are many cocktails made with pisco, so I asked Schuler if the Pisco Sour was his favorite cocktail. “No,” he replied. “My favorite cocktail is the one I’m going to have tomorrow. Today this is my favorite cocktail (pointing to the one the bartender brought us), but tomorrow the next one will be my favorite. People will say, ‘Johnny, which is your best pisco.’ It’s the one I am going to make next year.
“I’m a little bit of a renegade in the world of distillation. I break a lot of concepts. A cognac or brandy has to be exactly the same every year. If you buy Hennessy today and you buy another Hennessy 20 years from now, it will be exactly the same. I don’t agree. If pisco is made from wine and wine changes every year, why are you forcing a spirit to become very passive instead of letting it develop its own personality every year? So my piscos every year will be different. And my blend every year is going to be different. I won’t deviate from the taste profile we developed for Portón too much, but I will play with your palate.”
As previously stated, Pisco Portón is an acholado (blend) and the three grapes used in Pisco Portón are Quebranta, Albilla, and Torontel. We asked if Portón has any plans to make another type of pisco.
Schuler pulled out his phone and showed us a photo of eight different bottles of Pisco Portón. He said, “The one with the silver neck on the left is the acholado you have in the States today. The rest are each 100% of the grape that is allowed by the norm. There are eight grapes allowed by the norm and one I don’t like, so I don’t use it. My seven piscos are medal winners and are magnificent.”
The seven puro piscos are available in the Peruvian market today. Pisco Puro is coming to the United States as La Caravedo by Portón probably by June. Hacienda La Caravedo in Ica, Peru, is the oldest distillery in the Americas established in 1684 and is where Pisco Portón is made. Quebranta will be the grape used for the Pisco Puro.
In every photo we have seen of Johnny Schuler tasting pisco, he is using a different style of glass than is commonly found. We asked if there was a special pisco glass. To not much of a surprise, he said yes, and he designed it. He has a friend who owns a glass factory and about 15 years ago, his friend asked Schuler to design a pisco glass. Schuler then pulled out a pen and started drawing on a napkin for us his design of the pisco glass. As he drew, he described the exact parts of the glass and their specific purposes to enhance the flavor and aromas of pisco.
The next obvious question was if Riedel made a pisco glass. The answer was yes, and of course Schuler helped make it with Georg Riedel. Schuler described how Riedel had made 40 prototypes and the process they went through deciding on the correct glass to use. The end result does not look like Schuler’s glass because Riedel did not want to have an identical looking glass, but Schuler said both glasses are very good.
Three more cocktails were delivered by the bartender. These were made with pisco and Chardonnay with some thyme on top. Of course, these were excellent as well.
We had now seen two unique cocktails made with pisco and Schuler explained, “Why is Portón so good? First because of versatility. Any white spirit you have like gin, vodka, rum, and tequila with Portón is going to be much better. It’s going to be rounder, better structured, and smoother. It’s mixable. You can drink it neat, you can include it in other cocktails, and even with just ginger beer. Tequila? You can make a margarita or you can shoot it. Pisco is not a shooter. It’s a gentleman’s drink to savor. As we have seen, pisco is not a one drink cocktail. It’s a wonderful spirit.”
Schuler concluded by saying, “With pisco, you’re not going to have a headache tomorrow. Trust me. You can get plastered finishing a bottle at night, but the next morning because this is so clean and so neat, no headaches. It’s a safe drink. Pisco is one of the best distilled spirits in the world. It is absolutely pure. No coloring, no sugar, absolutely pure.”
We thanked Johnny Schuler for the time he spent with us and the enlightening experience. Armed with more knowledge of pisco, we look forward to enjoying the different types of cocktails made with Pisco Portón or just sipping by itself.
Be sure to read about our visit later to Hacienda La Caravedo in Ica, Peru to see where Pisco Portón is made.