Johnny Schuler is a master pisco distiller for Porton and a global pisco ambassador. An established chef and restaurateur, Schuler’s love affair with the spirit began in 1977 when he was approached about judging his first flavor competition for the beverage.
Surprised at the diversity and complexity of the different varieties, he became devoted to all things pisco related. After becoming a self-made expert, Schuler moved on to play a critical role in bringing the private sector players in Peru together with the government ministries. The result was nation-wide regulation of the spirit to protect consumer rights and monitor business practices within the country.
Fast forward to 2010 when he was approached by Porton to create a new brand of the premium spirit specifically for the American market. His overall pisco outreach extends to his television show “Por Las Rutas del Pisco” as well, which is aired throughout Latin America. Schuler also showcases the spirit in the menus and cocktail offerings of his Peruvian restaurants. I recently had a chance to chat with the Peruvian pisco master himself regarding his career path, his work with industry regulation and pisco tourism within the country of Peru. Here’s what he had to say.
MT: How tough was the transition from restaurateur to pisco aficionado, and how did you tackle the career and business logistics of the switch?
JS: The transition is more of an adaptation because I haven't stopped being a restaurateur. I still have my restaurants. Entering the pisco world was a natural part of following my passion for the last 25 years. I've become an unofficially-appointed ambassador of Peruvian pisco and traveled all over the world promoting pisco for Peru. I have collected the spirit forever and promoted its wonderful heritage and diversity in my TV program. Pisco has been a gift sent from heaven into my life. It has been a hobby and avocation for many years and now it has also become part of my everyday business. I never thought I would become a producer, but it was a natural progression and I love it.
MT: You’ve spent roughly 20 years bringing together private industry players with government ministry officials in order to properly regulate the pisco industry in Peru. I’m sure you’ve learned a thing or two about establishing the proper national framework to properly grow an industry from a grass roots perspective. If you had to break down the critical phases and entities necessary to do so successfully, what would they be and why?
JS: A group of us got together at one of my restaurants once a week 20 years ago. The success came because we formed a group of dedicated producers and government agencies with a love of pisco and a common mission: to analyze pisco and its future, and determine how pisco needed to be protected as it grew. The technical norms had to be solid to assure quality as the category grew. Then we worked together to form a regulatory council to make sure that every producer was compliant with the norms. It was a beautiful job by a lot of people and mostly pro bono, done out of love.
There were also a few other things that helped the category. We created a Peruvian tasters guild to do blind pisco tastings. Then, we organized the National Pisco Commission to host competitions and celebrate excellence. A lot of things had to come together to bring this beautiful tradition to the world and keep it safe.
MT: For those travelers unaware of Peru’s travel scene, are there any pisco tourism experiences for those interested in learning more? Distilleries they can visit for flight tastings? Do you have any regions or facilities you could recommend?
JS: The government tourism bureau just launched the first pisco tourism route that groups nine distilleries in Ica under a new travel program called La Ruta del Pisco. These nine distilleries have attractions and quality tasting experiences. Now, tourism is beginning to be promoted at an official capacity. But, it is important to remember that the tradition of hospitality is strong in pisco-growing regions and many distilleries large and small open their doors to visitors and love hosting them when they show up. For instance, you can go in Arequipa and find beautiful vineyards and distilleries.
MT: For a pisco rookie such as myself, what were the most crucial elements you used when developing Portón’s pisco for the American market? Grapes from a certain Peruvian region?
JS: It was much more complicated than that! We had a list of things we needed for the American market including a beautiful bottle, a story and history. Most importantly, we needed a truly fabulous product. To create that perfect mix, we needed to find the right vineyard, grapes, climate, custom copper pot stills and the right people. We had to put together a team of young, dedicated, hard-working people in the field and the distillery because making great pisco takes great skill. We had to find a team in the marketplace that could communicate on an entirely new category. I think the most important choice was to create a mosto verde blend. There are very few of them even here in Peru and the taste is really incredible that it makes people say, “Wow.” That was my responsibility and we have won a lot of competitions here in Peru for the quality of our product.
MT: How much of a role does equipment choice play in the production process? What are your recommendations to any newbies in the industry?
JS: You first have to know what you are doing and know your product. Whether you want to make whisky, gin, rum, vodka or pisco, you need to have a deep knowledge of how to make a good product. Trust your instincts. Trust your nose.
Equipment is relative. Different spirits use different types of equipment. We wanted to be state of the art. It really depends what you are trying to do. Pisco uses a discontinuous distillation, but vodka would need something different. You must learn and see.
We tried to maintain the most traditional artisanal essence using state-of-the-art design. We are using the best of modern technology, but we are not distancing ourselves from the traditional hand-crafted pisco. That’s why our distillery design incorporated gravity-powered techniques from 1684, but I think we are the only people who do that. We think electric pumps stress the liquid.
MT: Any advice for people trying to develop a spirit in their country?
JS: So many things have to be there already. You need a history, a damn good product, a nationalism around your spirit’s heritage and then on top of that you need a lot of money to market the spirit outside of the home country.
If you have all those things, you might have a chance. I recommend you start by making the highest quality product you can and telling your story again and again until people start to pay attention. You will also have to partner with the right professionals who know the industry because you can’t do it all yourself.
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