I found it interesting while walking the aisles of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) show last month in Las Vegas just how many different types of beverages—even after all these years-—the average American consumer still has little or no knowledge of. There were numerous importers and distillers from other countries at this year’s show, here to publicize their national drinks to the American market. I covered this to some extent in my write-up about the show, which you can find beginning on page 10 of the May issue of Beverage World. But the space there didn’t really allow me to do justice to the passion these companies have behind their products. Two cases in point are Portón, which sells half of all Peruvian pisco exports to the U.S., and CNS Enterprises, the oldest and largest importer of China’s baijiu to the United States.
During the show I had the pleasure of spending time with one of the world’s foremost experts on pisco, Johnny Schuler. Having Schuler guide you through a personal tasting and exploration of the delights of this unique spirt is a special experience to say the least. It’s rare to meet someone more enamored of a particular beverage. He detailed for me how Portón is made at the 330-year-old distillery in Hacienda La Caravedo in Ica, Peru. That’s right, 330 years old, making it the oldest working distillery in the Americas, according to Schuler. “We consider Pisco to be the fifth white spirit,” he explained to me. “Gin, vodka, rum and tequila are the four big sisters. And we have the new one on the market called pisco. People have to understand that pisco is a category of its own. It’s not like tequila which is made from cactus. It’s not like vodka, made from grain. Pisco’s made from fruit, the grape. So it’s the only white spirit made from a fruit. And Peru has about 380 distilleries that make hundreds or even thousands of different varieties of piscos. So it’s a wonderful, huge, beautiful world, much like the world of cognac in France.”
And yet, ask many Americans about pisco today and they might give you a blank stare. This is especially curious because pisco at one point was enormously popular in some parts of the United States. In fact, if you were to jump in your time machine and travel back to mid-1800s San Francisco, you’d find Pisco Punches being served all over the city. Furthermore, it just so happens that the most popular cocktail in Peru today, the Pisco Sour, was actually created by an American in Peru in 1918—a Mormon, in fact—named Victor Morris.
As for baijiu, the folks with CNS enthusiastically explained to me how much this spirit is an integral part of Chinese culture (and also that of many other Asian countries). The custom is for guests in China to be greeted with a tiny measure—about half an ounce (it is over 100 proof)—of the spirit when they arrive and everyone begins drinking it before they sit down. (I believe I actually witnessed this custom amongst a group of Chinese at a Chinese restaurant in New York City right after WSWA, purely by coincidence. The baijiu kept the diners quite energized, and on their feet very often during the meal!)
Baijiu is actually the top-selling spirit in the world; almost twice as much of it is consumed around the world as vodka. Now it’s heading here, too.