The bygone, golden age of exploration was a deeply romantic one.
The idea that you could just pull up your anchor and sail across uncharted waters into virgin territories still keeps many of us day-dreaming today (while we keep ourselves busy, of course, polishing bottles or renovating jiggers).
In an era of buccaneers, privateers, religious fanaticism, regal constrictions and royal ambitions, the New World was born. There was naturally a bit of murdering and pillaging involved, but then, discovery and death always somehow seem to go hand in hand. This rich background of expanding cultures and discovery is the reason I have a soft spot for New World spirits.
Through seafaring, traders’ quarrels and time-honoured practices, the combination of New World ingredients and techniques and Old World technology gave us some of what are now our back-bar staples.
It goes without saying that even the least savvy bartender will know a thing or two about rum, tequila and bourbon. Cachaça has gradually found its place on the map thanks to a number of industrious brands, people and the always cheerful brasileiros. But it is Pisco that I really think of as my quintessential New World spirit, a true marriage of old and new cultures.
And for any Pisco lover, this is a good time to be in London: magazines are bursting with praise for the stuff and we’ve seen a healthy increase in Chilean and Peruvian inspired restaurants and bars.
Last year, after the London Boutique Bar Show, I hosted a Velho Barreiro competition. In town for the show and present for the comp was none other than Picso Aba owner Alejandro Aguirre. The competition ended on a high note with the judges presenting the winners with their hard-earned prizes.
At that point Mr Aguirre made an announcement which took his UK representation team completely by surprise: Pisco Aba would be sponsoring another competition during the upcoming Cocktail Week and first prize would be a trip to Chile to visit Santiago and tour the Aba distillery. This came as rather pleasant news for a room full of eager bartenders.
After some off-the-cuff planning and speedy organisation we managed to prepare the day, an afternoon session with Chilean food and Pisco sours galore. And in the nature of a ‘surprise competition’, it seems only fitting that a surprise contender should scoop first prize.
Barrio North’s self-styled ‘grumspter’ Paul Donegan initially showed up among the bystanders and bought everyone a round of tequila with no intention of entering. But then he changed his mind, decided to enter and ended up winning the first prize.‘Nuff said, Mr Donegan.
I caught up with Paul a few weeks ago upon his return from Chile to be regaled with tales of his adventures. When he arrived in Santiago it seems that he had been put to work, conducting a couple of master classes for the elite of the capital city’s bartending community.
It is a unique and revealing experience to come face-to-face with a crowd of bartenders on the other side of the world. Paul explained to me that we are “spoiled” when it comes to our equipment and that many of the bartenders he spoke with found it hard to acquire what we would consider basics, jiggers and strainers in particular.
But he explained that the majority of them were passionate, eager and went through Pisco like there was no tomorrow. Brands like Capel and Occulto dominated the pouring category. As Paul put it: “There was no call for lots of spirits” when everyone was drinking a ‘piscombo’ – Capel and Coke.
It was Paul’s time at the heart of Pisco Aba that I was really eager to hear about. After an eight-hour drive out of Santiago and up the winding road to the Elqui Valley, he eventually arrived at what was referred to as “the facility” or the Aba distillery. It was then that he spun a yarn which for me was just about as close to the early days of navigation and exchange of old and new world culture as we are likely to encounter today.
The Elqui Valley, a hub of Pisco and wine production, is rural and beautiful. During the day, its sky is an azure postcard while at night, Paul explained that the stars are so piercingly bright that he could gaze upon them happily for hours. Then he told me this story. The Aguirre family and friends were having a BBQ at the base of the distillery and Paul had instantly volunteered himself for drink duty.
We must bear in mind the remoteness of the area: shops to buy back-up prep are in short supply here. After a quick conversation with Alejandro, Paul had acquired all of the limes in the area, just enough to “bang out” a round of Pisco sours for the party – made with Pisco which had been bottled that morning I might add. Now, as many of you know, it can be very hard to have just one pisco sour and the BBQ guests instantly asked for another.
With no more citrus Paul was in trouble. Then Alejandro came to the rescue. There is a type of lime in Chile which quite happily grows wild. It goes by the name of ‘limón de pica’. Paul described it as similar to a bergamot in size and scent, but sweeter than a standard lime in taste. Only a ten-minute walk away was a grove, and in early spring the limones were perfect for picking.
So into the night, under a star-strewn sky, a lone intrepid Scotsman ventured out to discover and collect an exotic fruit. Armed with only a flashlight against the darkness, Paul Donegan channelled the spirit of Duncan Nicol and Pedro de Valdivia and found what he was looking for.
He emerged smelling of fresh citrus and adventure, and proceeded to make a batch of the freshest Pisco sours that can be made. The ideal marriage of Old World technology and know-how with New World ingredients was renewed, and the romantic age of navigation was once again brought to life, if only for a few short hours on a calm night in the Elqui Valley.