For centuries, the neighboring countries of Peru and Chile have been embroiled in a debate over which is the true birthplace of pisco. Both sides, claiming the spirit as their own, have adopted the frothy pisco sour cocktail as the national drink. And, while each country imports pisco produced across the border, neither allows it to be labeled pisco. What’s all the fuss about? Like French cognac, pisco is a brandy distilled from wine (which has been produced in South America since the Spanish arrived there in the 16th century).
Although some Chilean piscos are aged in wood as cognac is, most piscos—including all Peruvian varieties, by law—are stored in neutral vessels such as glass or stainless steel. In addition, Peruvian pisco must be distilled only once and cannot be diluted by water or other ingredients. What results is a clear spirit that, according to its aficionados, captures the natural essence of the locally cultivated grapes.
Our favorite pisco is Pisco Porton made by the hands of our friend Johnny Schuler, the international ambassador for the drink. When in Dallas he suggested we sample a pisco sour at Jettison and La Duni.
In Mexico, spirits have long been produced from the agave plant. The traditional term for distilled agave spirits is mezcal (a Nahuatl-derived word also spelled “mescal”). Historically, different regions of Mexico have produced different varieties of mezcal, the most famous of which is tequila, made exclusively from blue agave (Agave tequilana) and named after a town in Jalisco state.
After the mass production of tequila made it internationally famous, the term mezcal came to refer to the varieties made mostly in southern Mexico (especially Oaxaca) and typically by traditional (nonindustrial) methods. Whereas tequilas are produced by cooking the heart of the agave plant in an oven, mezcal distillers slow-roast it in an underground fire pit, which imparts a smoky flavor to the final product. In recent years, artisanal mezcals have become popular outside Mexico and have even found their way into cocktails for their strong, smoky flavors.
In Dallas we prefer Ilegal Mezcal Joven found at Las Almas Rotas or La Viuda Negra where you might find an Ahumado Seco which mildly translates to “dry smoke,” this cocktail balances the earthiness of mezcal with the brightness of hibiscus and ginger.
The world’s best-selling alcohol comes from the country with the world’s best hard-alcohol drinkers. Perhaps surprisingly, this country is South Korea, and their rice alcohol soju has dominated the world market, selling about 90 million cases per year. The popular soju brand Jinro accounted for 73.8 million of these cases in 2015. Soju’s popularity arises from its low price—selling for about 1,450 won, which is just over $1—and its medium-range alcohol composition, usually about 20%. Like vodka, soju lends itself to mixed drinks because it essentially lacks smell or flavor.
While Jinro is still trying to crack the international market, it is almost too beloved at home: soju consumption has been a problem in South Korea, leading to swarms of over-drinkers landing in prison or passed out on the street overnight. In 2011 Seoul police reported that nearly 77 percent of those charged with obstruction of justice were drunk at the time.
Find Soju at great cocktail bars , and also Soju 101. Try it straight, but it could be infused into cocktails. Enjoy tamago tempura or bulgogi and soju while belting out karaoke.