Piscos have piqued American interest, offering mixability and complexity. The traditional Peruvian pisco sour combines pisco with lime juice, simple syrup, egg white and Angostura bitters. Photo courtesy of manchamanteles/promperu. Mezcalerias, Peruvian piscos, Chilean appellations and Old World aperitifs — all primed for American menus
By Jack Robertiello
Every day, restaurant beverage professionals get calls or receive samples or hear pitches about the next big global thing. Whether it’s an odd new vodka flavor, an unusual cocktail, an obscure beer or an emerging varietal wine, these drinks are positioned as an opportunity to be cutting edge. Of course, few actually do represent such an advantage, but it’s true that today a confluence of trends make this about the most intriguing time to be in charge of a beverage program: a sophisticated and experimental marketplace across all categories, constant improvement in the quality of beverage alcohol, a globalization of trends spurred by social media and the Internet.
If the cocktail revolution has done anything, it has recast many neglected and unknown spirits in a style that American drinkers can appreciate. Among spirits, mezcal and pisco continue to develop fans as more global influences are drafted into the whirlwind of American drink-making creativity.
Mezcal Makes Its Mark
Mezcal has an obvious advantage: Building on the popularity of tequila and Mexican cuisine, it’s easy to transition customers into sampling a classic Margarita spiked with the added smoky zip of the other agave spirit.
The progenitor of tequila (which is made from only one type of agave, Blue Weber, in five Mexican states, mainly Jalisco), mezcal can be made from about 30 agave species and distilled in seven Mexican states, though the majority comes from the southern state of Oaxaca. Most are made from the espadin agave, but many mezcals new to the United States are being made from other varieties — tobala, dobadaan, dasylirion, madre cuixe and tobaziche — and labeled as such.
As for its reputation as firewater bursting with industrial aromas of burning rubber, mezcal is often still powerful and pungent, with even the better-made variations retaining a punchy and smoky essence. But at its best, mezcal is filled with aromas and flavors of sweet fruit, herbs and spices, floral and briny. It’s an acquired taste, like Islay Scotches or grappa, coming by its assertiveness through an ancient production method. Agaves are slowly roasted in an underground pit, sometimes for days, often with mesquite or oak, then crushed under a large stone wheel called a tahona, the juice frequently fermented in wooden tanks before being distilled.
Bars and restaurants showcasing mezcals are blooming in many cities. A good example is the back room bar of popular Austin, Texas, spot Takoba, called Cantina El Milamores, which offers more than 40 mezcals and only about a dozen tequilas, many mezcal-based cocktails, and a flight menu that contrasts various agave varietals and producing villages.
Indeed, mezcal can enhance credibility for today’s modern Mexican restaurants. A perfect example is the recent opening of La Urbana in San Francisco, a modern take on the traditional Mexican cantina. Included in the design was Mezcaleria Urbana, a mezcal tasting room, led by bartender Lucas Ranzuglia. Drinks include the Acapulco-Manila, a mezcal-based take on the dry Martini, and the Mezcal and Cacao, marrying the two Oaxacan specialties.
This eye-catching Prickly Pear & Chile Piquin Margarita by mixologist Manny Hinojosa highlights flavors of Mexico: mezcal, tequila, prickly pear purée, agave nectar, lime juice and chile piquin. photo courtesy of The Perfect Purée of Napa Valley/W White Design.
Pisco Pulls Up
Pisco holds a significant place in the San Francisco area’s cocktail history. It’s fitting that its recent re-emergence is tied to its popularity there, led in part by Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina, whose own Peruvian brand Encanto has helped lead the resurgence. The grape brandy (Peruvian is un-aged by law, although pisco made in Chile can include some wood aging) is most often seen in two classic cocktails, the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch, though bartenders have worked to incorporate the brandy into new recipes.
With American drinkers in mind, producers like Portón and BarSol have started bottling single-grape varietal piscos, as well as the fresh and grapey pisco style called mosto verde which includes incompletely fermented wine that imparts more layers of rich complexity and sweeter flavors to the basic styles. As more producers bring these expressions to North America, the array of brands and choices has helped build a slow but steady interest.
At restaurants like La Mar, an international venture with outposts in San Francisco and New York, as well as Lima, Bogota and Sao Paulo, the cocktails stretch the limits of the Sour and Punch, allowing the spirit’s aromatics and flavors to shine through. The simple Chilcano (ginger ale, pisco, lime juice and bitters) and the more complex Chicha Tu Ma (a blend of cooked fruits, spices and purple corn with pisco and lime juice) show that pisco is above all mixable, and a perfect steppingstone for white spirit drinkers who may not favor botanical flavors in gin but want something with more character than vodka.
Chile: Serious Wine Contender
Until the 1990s, most servers needed only to be familiar with wines from California and Western Europe. Now the winemaking in the New World and even Eastern Europe has improved to create better and much more interesting vintages. What’s emerging from Chile today is a perfect example.
Not long ago considered the cheap choice if flavor complexity didn’t matter, wines from Chile have improved by a magnitude in the past decade. Tied to an image established in the ’90s for inexpensive but undistinguished value brands, Chileans, outside of a few high-profile efforts from producers like Lapostelle and Montes, were unable to graduate fans to more sophisticated wines. That was primarily because as a country fairly new to the international wine world, many Chilean winemakers were unsure what direction to take — even which varietals to plant and where they best thrived.
Trying to emulate the success found by Argentina’s producers of Malbec, now one of America’s favorite red grape varietals, many Chilean producers focused on a difficult varietal, Carmenere, with mixed results. “We wave too much the flag of Carmenere in Chile,” says Fernando Pavon, the outspoken export manager for noted organic and biodynamic producer Emiliana, which like many large producers, is working assiduously to connect varietals to terroir in the country.
Though many consumers still think of Chile as that value-wine supplier, the quality and range of wines now being produced in this fast-developing country is mind-bending. Efforts of many producers to figure out how to take advantage of the enormous diversity of soil and micro-climates in the numerous producing valleys, and to exploit particular combinations of region, climate, vineyard and varietal, have resulted in vibrant and tangy Sauvignon Blancs, fresh and elegant Pinot Noirs, ripe and spicy Malbecs, dense and intriguing Syrahs, sleek and sophisticated Cabernet Sauvignons.
Typical of the kind of creative effort arising in Chile is Vigno, a sort of wine slam in which 12 producers of various sizes in the Maule Valley can bottle under the Vigno label wines made from at least 65 percent old vine Carignan. Some members of Vigno have signed up for the Movement of Independent Vintners (MOVI) — about 15 small, quality-oriented wineries who are making sometimes odd, sometimes smashing varietal and blended wines.
That ability to produce a wider range of wines has helped producers make inroads here: Emiliana supplies grocery chain Whole Foods with a line of organic wines. It’s also recently partnered on a series of wine dinners with the 33-unit Legal Sea Foods.
Whether the wines come from better-known areas like the Maipo and Colchagua valleys or lesser-known regions like Bío-Bío and Casablanca, what’s being crafted in Chile is getting another and much closer look.
Taking full advantage of their country’s diverse climate and geography, Chilean wine producers now offer much better range and quality than in decades past. Photo courtesy of wines of chile.
Old World, New Again
Drink observers have long wondered what it would take for smart European producers of traditional quality liqueurs to get serious about promoting their wares in the United States. While bartenders have an embarrassment of spirit riches from which to choose today, those important complementary ingredients from the Old World often have been hard to source. Lately, it seems those producers have taken note.
One of the recent breakout summer cocktails is the Aperol Spritz, a mix of the gentiana-hued Italian aperitif Aperol with soda and Prosecco. Light, effervescent, slightly bitter and altogether refreshing, the drink has become a brunch favorite. Bartenders using it in cocktails have helped boost Aperol sales. Its acceptance is a sign of how far American drinkers have recalibrated their palates to Old World flavors.
Italy is aswim in low-alcohol bitter bracers, from deep, dark amaros flavored with cardoons or artichokes to brighter, lighter flavors like limoncello. The cocktail revolution has encouraged producers like Luxardo, best-known maker of maraschino liqueur, to launch a number of classic cordial brands into the United States in the past few years.
Likewise, France has long been known for the high quality of the fruit cordials and aperitifs produced by very old companies using time-tested recipes. Recently, some of them have targeted bars here, including the venerable Gabriel Boudier, who is now offering a line of cordials called the Mixologist Range — about a dozen flavors designed for the contemporary bartender in varieties including caramel, hibiscus and Darjeeling tea. Cognac family Merlet et Fils similarly is producing fruit liqueurs and cognacs with the goal of developing a passionate following at bars. Now that American palates are changing and more options are available, these uniquely flavored international drinks are getting major play.
lessons for lower proof
These spirits play into another international trend: low-alcohol tippling. Bars are increasingly featuring menu sections dedicated to drinks at different levels of potency. At the bar at Manhattan’s NoMad Hotel, guests can order complex alcohol-free drinks, or opt for apertif-style drinks, like the Cardinale — made with Italian amaro, sherry, ginger and citrus.
Wine journalists have been beating the drum for more quaffable wines, or at least those that aren’t so strong that they limit how much a responsible diner can consume at one sitting. Now the trend toward bigger, bolder and stronger beers has been slowed as well, as so-called extreme brewing is giving way to what’s known as session beers — those that display more balance and subtlety as well as lower proof, so that more can be consumed.
It’s something like the return of old English-style pub brews, notable for their lower proof and easy drinking. While extreme brewing is mostly an American phenomenon, the return of more subtle beers fits nicely with the growth of beer and food pairing, as the intensity of the more extreme beers left little room for other flavors.
Beer-focused operators, with few exceptions, learned their lesson long ago that only diehard brew aficionados will return again and again to an operation without well thought-out food, and extreme beers can be said to work against that trend. Thankfully, balance is being restored among the many successful gastropubs in cities across the country.
Lower alcohol options expand the role of beverages like session beers, lighter wines and aperitif-style drinks. Taking a second and deeper look at the drinking styles and iconic sips from around the globe can open up opportunities for creative and experiential beverage menus.