The Pisco King

Meet Johnny Schuler, Peruvian restaurateur, celebrity chef, tv personality, master distiller and Medal of Honour winner for his work in promoting the uniquely Latin American spirit, Pisco.

We bumped into Johnny one freezing Friday over lunch in The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English when we stepped in from the cold to enter the Plaza Hotel in our dining ‘brag book’.

We’d hit the toffy Plaza Hotel early, and were given primo seating on a corner of the bar facing the seafood station where we settled in with our umbrellas, coats, hats and gloves littering the floor beneath our stools. The Food Hall is a full-service restaurant and we selected dishes from various stations throughout the hall, choosing a bottle of Napa Cellars Zinfandel from the extensive wine list.

Over the next couple of hours the food hall filled to capacity save for two seats immediately to our left on the adjacent corner of the bar. Eventually a rather attractive woman was seated on one stool and finally the last  was populated by our soon-to-be new chum, the urbane Mr Johnny Schuler.

Our various dishes came and went almost in cadence with the other patrons who seemed to be only in for a quick bite and run. We, on the other hand intended to milk our time for all it was worth. As happens in these contemporary ‘shared-table’ days conversations between strangers strike up, and Johnny pulled out his iPhone to show pics of the snow storm he had just encountered outside.  He made an attempt to strike up a one-on-one conversation with the woman, who we learned was from Queens, but she kept including us in her responses.

Eventually, the woman departed and our conversation with Johnny began to flourish as a second bottle of Zin was splashed into three glasses. Introductions were made more formal, and we shared our reasons for being where we were. Johnny, it transpired, is the CEO and master distiller of Pisco Portón in Lima, Peru, and was in New York talking with distributors. Only later did we learn of his other credentials.

Our conversation turned to our recent expedition on the gringo trail; our experiences in Neuvo Andean cuisine and the amazing creole nature of Peruvian chifas and how that culinary style is spreading worldwide through the influence of Nobu Matsuhisa and others. We then learned that Nobu spent a year rattling the pans in one of Johnny’s kitchens before he moved to New York and palled up with Bobby de Niro.

Johnny’s love affair with pisco started in 1977 when he was asked to stand in as judge in a pisco quality competition. The diversity and complexity of the spirits sampled so captured his imagination he set about learning everything he could, ultimately acting as unofficial ‘ambassador’ for the spirit. In 2010, funded by a Texas oil billionaire he set up Pisco Portón to produce ultra premium pisco for the American market. Johnny spent a large chunk of their cash adding to Hacienda La Caravedo, the oldest distillery in the Americas (1684), to produce what he describes as the first “techno-artisanal” pisco in Peru,  uniting the latest technology with traditional techniques and unwavering precision.

Pisco is grape juice, first fermented then distilled. The result is a brilliant and clear spirit with a floral, grassy nose generating warmth on the palate and a long, smooth finish. It is traditionally drunk neat but is an excellent base for many interesting and exquisite cocktails such as the classic pisco sour, capitán, chilcano and algarrobina. The latest pisco fad is the martini and there are an infinite number of possibilities made with pisco, fruit and other mixers.

There are three different types of pisco:

  • Pure: made from one type of grape only
  • Acholado: made from a blend of two or more varieties
  • Mosto Verde (green must): an extremely expensive process, because not all the grape sugars are allowed to ferment into alcohol and thus there is less pisco in each batch. This is the technique Johnny uses in his production of Pisco Portón.

It takes around six or seven kilos of grapes to produce just one bottle of pisco, and up to eight grape varieties can be used (none of which are familiar to me).

I’ve misplaced Johnny’s business card; I promised to keep in touch and investigate distribution opportunities in Oz. Now that my memory has been jolted, I’ll try to get in touch. He is an interesting bloke, and most excellent company.

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