Master Distiller and restaurateur Johnny Schuler is the preacher of pisco.
He's dedicated to bringing the fragrant Peruvian spirit to the states. Working hard on a marketing campaign to make his this dream a reality, he's learning how to navigate the different state laws regulating alcohol, about dry and wet states. He said he's, "learning a new lingo here." Whatever the process, it seems, Schuler is going to get pisco on your palette.
Reminiscent of Dos Equis' "the most interesting man in the world," Schuler is a major force in the spirits, and, specifically, the pisco industry. We spoke with him in this first part of an interview about his nationality, his new company Porton, and about his passion for one particular beverage.
New Times: Are you Peruvian?
Johnny Schuler: Oh, my God, we begin with a problem. I'll tell you the story. I was actually born in Bolivia, the Bolivian jungle. My father was working for the American government in those days, building camps for the extraction of gaucho, rubber, where he met my mother.
My mother was a Bolivian but she was the daughter of a Bolivian woman and a Swiss, so we're four brothers, two were born in Bolivia, and then my father, after the war, moved to Peru, so two were born in Peru.
But I don't carry the Bolivian nationality, I don't carry the Peruvian nationality. I've been Swiss all my life. My country has several flags.
So, you bought this distillery in recent years?
I've been involved with pisco for a long time, for many years. The story is very nice to tell.
I discovered pisco about 25 years ago. I owned a restaurant business in Lima, I do additional catering. I feed oil camps, mining camps and in my restaurants, pisco is something you served in a pisco sour, you never served straight. It was just a spirit you had on the speed rack to make pisco sours.
One day, I'm invited to this competition to be a judge, because I was already a judge taster for wines and spirits and I discovered pisco or pisco discovered me, but it was a love affair at first sight and it never stopped since. I went into this passion binge for pisco all my life, for the last 25 or 30 years.
And I've written books on pisco, I have a television program aired in Peru weekly for five years now, it's aired here in the states also, on pisco, I presided the Peruvian Academy of Pisco, I presided the Peruvian Tasters Guild for 17 years, so I was pisco, I've been pisco the last 25 years of my life.
One day, I received a phone call from an American investor through a friend who said, "Johnny, I'm interested in going into the pisco business." So, I said, "Nah, you know what? I don't want to do it. It's not my intention, that's not what I work for; I'm in the restaurant business." But he said, "you want to introduce pisco to the United States. You want it to be, as you declared many times, and I've read your declarations, I have your story for the past four or five years, the story of your life, I know everything you do and you always said that your dream is to be able to see in one of the top liquor stores in Park Avenue in New York, Peruvian pisco. Upscale, premium, high class, ultra premium product on the shelves. I'm willing to do that."
I said, "But Bill (Kallop), this is going to take an enormous amount of money." He said, "Johnny, I'm in the oil business. I'll handle that part if you handle the passion and the production." So, we joined forces.
We've had pisco in Miami for a while now, a couple years.
About ten years.
Can you describe what makes pisco pisco? How it's distilled?
Yes. You know what? Pisco, and this is what I've been preaching, gospelling all over the world for 25 years.
Pisco is a very singular, very particular spirit. It's origin is grapes, of course. It's made from grapes, but so is grappa, but pisco is not a grappa. Grappas are made from pomace, which is a waste product from making wine. Pisco is made from wine, which is the nectar, the essence of the grape, not the waste.
So, that's the first part. We have a different birth certificate than a grappa. I am an international taster, and I taste in different competitions around the world, the most important being the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles where I preside one of the juries for the last five or six years. And when we come to taste spirits made of grapes, one category says, distilled distilled from grapes, and distilled from wine.
Distilled from grapes, you have Marc de Bourgogne from France, you have the trester from Germany, you have tsipuro from Greece, you have the orujo de Galicia from Spain, and grappa from Italy, and so on. Because every country that produces wine is going to recuperate some investment from rehashing a waste product, which is the stems and the skins.
And then the second category says distilled from wine, there's four spirits in that category, cognac, armagnac, brandy, and this. So, we're slightly more sophisticated than the others.
And in that category, why are we different? Because we don't need to borrow aromas from wood. Pisco doesn't age in wood. Pisco is rested by norm at least three months, we do it for about a year, from about eight months to a year and then it's bottled clear. We don't want external aromas to change the primary structure of the grape. That's the great difference.
Second is that in all those gin, rum, whisky, tequila, vodka, cognac, armagnac, brandy, this is the only one distilled to proof. This means that no water is added to regulate the alcoholic content that you put in the bottle. Which is a standard operating procedure for any spirit in the world. All producers will distill to a higher alcoholic level because it maximizes production, economically it's better. And then they reduce it from the 78 degrees that they reach to 40 or 42 or 80 proof or whatever they put on the bottle with the addition of water. To bring it from 80 to 40, they are doubling the amount of water into the spirit.
In Peru, it's against the law to use water. So, it's distilled to proof. And then it's not aged in wood, so this makes it so singular, so unique, and I think we weren't knowledgeable enough for the past 350 years that we've been producing pisco to share with the rest of the world why this is so singular. Now we do. Now we understand what distilled to proof is, now we understand what small batch distillation is, we know what a copper pot still is. No passing through caramel or wood artificially. In the case of Porton, even we go further, that we don't use artificial yeasts for fermentation. We ferment with natural wild yeast.
In a couple words how would you describe the flavor of a good pisco? For someone who's never tasted it before?
Do you want me to describe it as a romanticist, or do you want me to describe it as a technician?
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Could we get both? Romanticist first?
Romanticist first. It's exotic. It's sensual. It's deep. It's sincere. It is beautifully balanced, well textured. It has a marvelous equilibrium between its alcoholic structure and its aromatics that turns into the most wonderful feeling in your mouth with a smooth almost velvety pass through the mouth giving you a very long, long beautiful finish.
Now, what does it taste like?! The technical part is, as we explained, is made from grapes. In the case of Porton, I use, or we use, three different grapes for three different purposes. But each grape, for the wine drinkers of your column, they know the difference between a syrah or malbec and a cab or whatever kind of red or white grapes, because each one has a basket of descriptors. Descriptors are words that refer to a semblance that reminds you of certain aromas. Flowers or essences, spices, perfumes, fruits, or bad things. So, each one has a basket of its own. Each one has its own personality. As a good wine sommelier, or wine advocate or wine professional, or wine drinker, even an aficionado wine drinker will go into a cabernet sauvignon and sense wild cherries, red cherries, and he can begin to describe everything. A good pisco drinker can identify the grapes in a pisco because each grape has its own basket, its own cornucopia of aromas, perfumes, of spices.