While Chattanooga is putting down its roots in the world of cocktails, some of our not-so-far-away neighbors in Nashville have already established themselves and are beginning to draw the likes of big brand names, expanding craft cocktail bars and heavy hitters in the bar industry.
1 ½ oz pisco
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz simple syrup
1 small egg white
Combine pisco, juice, syrup and egg white in a shaker; and shake vigorously without ice. Add ice, shake well again and strain neat. Place a few drops of bitters over the top and enjoy!
Every now and then they let me tag along for the spoils, which most recently included a small industry gathering at the recently opened Music City Tippler, sponsored by Best Brands Distributing and Pisco Portón. Special guests included Johnny Schuler, master distiller of Pisco Portón; and Dale DeGroff, better known to some as "King Cocktail."
For those of you who aren’t familiar with DeGroff, he is largely responsible for the renaissance of the craft cocktail. He moved to New York with aspirations to become an actor, and somewhere along the way, he landed a dishwasher position at Charlie O’s to help pay the bills. Through a twist of fate (and a little white lie), DeGroff got his first bartending gig; and as he continued to pursue that path, it turned out he was really good at it.
DeGroff, alongside restaurateur Joseph Baum, pioneered the tossing aside of premade sour mix and soda guns in a cocktail era where everything was prepackaged, bright blue and built for volume. First applying their knowledge of fresh juices and following "How to Mix Drinks" by Jerry Thomas at Aurora, they proved that it was possible to make the classics correctly in high volume. In the late 1980s, DeGroff began to work at the iconic Rainbow Room, a Cipriani family restaurant located on the 65thfloor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Eventually, he began to teach classes on mixing drinks at New York University, where he took young bartenders like Audrey Saunders under his wing, building the family tree that is now the New York bartending community. Audrey went on to open the Pegu Club and is now one of the most esteemed female bartenders and mentors in the industry.
Needless to say, none of us would be sipping on craft cocktails if not for DeGroff. And in addition to everything we just talked about, he is also credited with bringing the pisco movement back to the United States. When building his cocktail menu for the Rainbow Room, he made a bold move and put on the pisco sour, a cocktail that no one had seen listed on a menu since 1959. As he developed and expanded his pisco cocktail repertoire, he grew close with famed pisco producers like Schuler.
Schuler is recognized as one of the leading pisco aficionados, and as a master distiller of Pisco Portón, he insists on making it the right way. Portón is a Peruvian-style pisco (versus Chilean—there’s a lot of debate over which came first), made in a gravity-fed still. Pisco is a clear, white spirit made from fermented grapes. There are several methods in which to make pisco, but Schuler uses the mosto verde method, where the grapes are not entirely done fermenting when they start the distillation process.
This creates a higher sugar content, which in this case leads to more flavor. I will say that I have the utmost respect for pisco producers, if not solely for the fact that—unlike any other spirit I have come across—they must distill to proof. What does that mean, exactly? Think back to our bourbon discussions. After distillation, alcohol contents can reach in the 100-plus proof range, especially those that go through a redistillation process. Pisco producers have one chance to distill their batch to exactly 86 proof, after which they let the spirit rest for a few months before bottling.
Spending an evening with these industry leaders was not only enlightening but highly enjoyable and entertaining. I have now seen Schuler and DeGroff shoot Fireball whiskey (I don’t think either of them were a huge fan) and seen DeGroff get down to some serious honky tonk at Robert’s Western World in downtown Nashville. If you find yourself in that corner of the world, go check out the new Music City Tippler, whose doors are officially open to the public as of this week. Until then, grab a great bottle of pisco and try your hand at making DeGroff’s famed pisco sour.
Until next time, happy imbibing!
Laura Kelton is a recent graduate of UTC and currently runs the bar program at Easy Bistro & Bar. Feel free to reach out to her by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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