We sat down with Nathan Dalton of Piscobar in the Catahoula Hotel in New Orleans to chat about his work, the history of pisco, and his cocktail for the Pisco Fever Box, the Last Guinea Pig in Cuzco!
S&S: What’s your specialty?
ND: I guess I would have to say pisco is my specialty. I recently opened a bar/café in the Catahoula Hotel in New Orleans that was completely centered around it. For the past ten years I’ve been working in Latin American bars, but pisco is my number-one love for sure.
S&S: New Orleans has been a cocktail mecca for so long with many classic cocktails originating from the city—in that kind of environment, what do you do to stand out?
ND: In a city with such a rich history and so many great bars, as you say, my view is that in order to stand out you really need a fresh angle. Anyway, why would I want to do the same old stuff that everyone else is doing? So I’m always trying to figure out what hole needs to be filled in the city, and if it’s something I think would be fun, I jump in. At Felipe’s, we were one of the first, if not the very first, bar in the city focusing on some of the more obscure Latin American spirits. At Tiki Tolteca, we were the first tiki bar in the city since the eighties, and we did it from the point of view of Latin America, which was a pretty undeveloped concept. Then at the Catahoula, we opened Piscobar, which was the first pisco bar in Louisiana ever as far as we could find out, and maybe in the whole south outside of Miami.
S&S: What inspired you to open a bar so focused on pisco?
ND: Back when I was at Felipe’s Taqueria, we decided to branch out from just margaritas and get into the (then) lesser-known spirits of South and Central America. Spirits like cachaça, aguardiente, mezcal, pisco. Well, pisco became my favorite to work with because I felt like it was the most versatile and approachable, which is important when you’re introducing something new to someone. But not only that, its flavor profiles are also different from anything you can get on the market.
Oh geez, I could go on for an hour trying to answer this question. I’ll try to make it short. With the cocktail revolution in full swing, bartenders are very interested in learning all the old classics. We quickly realized that some of the great drinks before Prohibition (which was the last time the country was really serious about this stuff) couldn’t be made anymore. Rye whisky had all but dried up for your Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, and Old Tom Gin was impossible to get for your Martinezes. But whereas these deficiencies were due to lack of demand, pisco was unavailable for a different reason.
In the 1800s and up through the 1960s, you could find it all over the world, and the industry was bracing itself for the largest jump in demand ever—but then Peru started having some troubles at home. There was a coup in the sixties and a redistribution of the country’s land from the wealthy to the poor, which, although noble in spirit, ended up crashing the economy. Things ended up pretty scary, and that lasted for decades. A fantastic documentary is coming out about all of this called Pisco Punch: A Cocktail Comeback Story. Over the past fifteen years, though, things have started turning around. The economy is improving and the government is fighting corruption. And now you can get pisco again, and we can make pisco sours, chilcanos, and capitáns!
The other uniquely wonderful thing about pisco is how pure it is. Every drop in a bottle of pisco came from a grape and nothing else. That is a level of purity unmatched in any spirit category that I am aware of in the world. No chemicals are allowed, the fermentation must be natural, you can’t age it in oak, and not even water is allowed at any step in the process. With grains or agave, for example, you have to add water during the fermentation process so the yeast can survive. And with almost every spirit you drink, it was first distilled to a high proof and then brought back down to the desired alcohol level with the addition of water. The higher you distill something, the more “pure” they always claim it to be. And while that is true in a sense, you have to stop and think about what that means and whether “pure” is synonymous with “good.” What are you purifying out? Namely, all the aromas and flavor compounds from the plant that you started with—grapes, in the case of pisco.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that when you combine the purity of Peruvian pisco, its long and rich history, its uniqueness of flavor, its approachability, its place in the cannon of classic cocktails, and what it means to the amazing Peruvian people who have been through so much but are rapidly becoming a major economic player and have so much culture to offer the rest of the world—when I consider all of that, I can’t help but stand in awe of this spirit.
S&S: Especially as it’s a hotel bar, do you feel your out-of-town guests embrace pisco or do you find yourself having to explain the spirit often?
ND: Both! Several years ago, when I tried to push pisco at a Mexican taqueria, people didn’t want to hear about it. But when you build a whole program around a spirit, suddenly people are interested. We still have to explain what it is all day every day, but that just means it’s working. A few of us even got tattoos with a short explanation because we’ve had to explain it so much.
S&S: Ha! For many of our subscribers, this will also be the first time they’ll be trying pisco—is there anything you’d like to tell them about it?
ND: Other than what I mentioned before, I strongly believe that pisco is the next big spirits category and before long it will be as common as tequila. Already, so many more people know about it than they did a few years ago, and while pisco sours are the drink most people associate with it, it is so much more versatile than that. The next time you go to a good bar, instead of a Moscow Mule, ask for a chilcano. It’s the same thing but with pisco instead of vodka, and it’s actually older and, in my opinion, way more interesting and tastier.
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
ND: Maybe the last technique I really got into was blending drinks. I know that doesn’t sound interesting, but it is very rare to find a serious bar in America that embraces the blender. We have a rooftop bar at the hotel, and to keep thing fresh we keep changing up the concept. Last summer we put out a menu that used a blender for every single drink. Why don’t people respect blended drinks? It opens up options that are otherwise unavailable, like whole fresh fruit instead of just the juice, and a totally unique consistency. Also, in Peru, everyone uses blenders for pisco sours because they make millions of them and a blender enables you to froth the egg white in seconds (though you can’t get the bubbles quite as dense).
S&S: What inspired you to create The Last Guinea Pig in Cuzco?
ND: So back in 2012, a couple of friends and I decided to open the first tiki bar in New Orleans since the 1980s. We called it Tiki Tolteca. It was in conjunction with a Mexican taqueria which was right downstairs, so we decided to push the boundaries beyond rum and see what we could do with “Latin American Tiki,” which became the theme of the bar. This was the first tiki drink I came up with that used pisco as the main ingredient, and it’s still one of my favorites.
S&S: What sets it apart?
ND: One defining characteristic of a tiki drink is that it’s complicated to make. It’s not true in every case, but if you work a tiki bar, you get used to having to grab seven, eight, or nine bottles to make a single drink. This drink is probably on the “more complicated” end of the spectrum. For the box, we’ve gone to the trouble of combining some of these elements into a syrup we’re calling “Nate’s tiki mix,” which is really like a combination of passion fruit syrup, falernum, cinnamon syrup, and allspice liqueur. The green tea is a little off the beaten path for a tiki drink, but it is right at home in Peru. Actually, in Peru, they use coca tea in cocktails, but I promise green sencha tea tastes extremely similar. Since coca leaves are illegal in the states, I like keep green tea close at hand when I’m dealing with pisco. In the end, my hope was to create a refreshing drink that wasn’t too sour and which allowed the pisco to shine through.
S&S: What do you hope people’s reactions will be when they try this drink?
ND: I hope people will try this drink and it will inspire them to jump for joy. I hope they shed a tear of happiness. I would love if it were the impetus for a marriage proposal or for the conception of a child who grows up to be president. If I can’t have that, I hope it at least brings a smile to someone’s face and a desire to delve further into pisco and tiki drinks. They are both rabbit holes worth diving into.
S&S: What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy your cocktail at home?
ND: Whatever they like. I know very little about what bands are good, which is strange because I have a degree in music composition. Okay, one idea. Since it’s a Latin tiki drink, samba seems to go pretty well. Or Os Mutantes if someone wants to get a little weird. I know that’s Brazilian and not Peruvian, but we played a lot of it at the tiki bar. If I’m listening to music these days, it’s probably going to be Hamilton.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with your cocktail?
ND: Ceviche! The pisco, the acidity, the fruit juices, everything pairs great with ceviche. There are different ceviche traditions, though, so make sure to get a Peruvian recipe.
S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?
ND: Other than hang out with the wife and dogs, I play a lot of piano. At least a little bit every day but I can play for hours without getting bored. At one point in my life I wanted to pursue it professionally, but then I discovered bartending.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out a new bar?
ND: It really depends on the bar. If they are known for a certain drink, I’ll get that. If there’s a pisco drink on the menu, I’ll almost always order that just to see what people are doing with it. If it’s a tiki bar and I want to see if they are worth their salt, I’ll order a Mai Tai. But you can rarely go wrong by asking the bartender his or her opinion.