Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Swilling South America

28. May 2006 • Heidi Sulzdorf, Guest Contributor
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Closeup of Grapes Exotic spirits are invading for the summer. For my first Arbor Update entry about the food and drink of Ann Arbor, I’ve decided to start about as close to (my) home as humanly possible: Leopold Brothers Brewery. Now, much ink has been spilled (that’s what people used before blogging, folks) over The Brothers’ (as they will henceforth be named) beer. I’ve had it, I’ve liked some lagers, hated others, and been overall pretty “eh” about the whole charade, especially as I’m a dark beer drinker myself. Mostly I go to Leopold’s with housemates and colleagues, looking for someplace big enough for everyone to sit comfortably, nosh on some decent, even sometimes adventurous bar-food, and listen to the indisputably good jukebox. On the average outing, I order a martini or a Leo’s Lemonade (good, relatively cheap, and real-lemon tart!). I’ve never been disappointed with The Brothers’ spirits, and it’s kept me in good stead. When, recently, I walked into the brewpub on a Monday evening in celebration of a friend’s conference paper-acceptance, I was enticed - tantalized - by a new phenomena. Well, perhaps not that new – but new to me. Pisco. Ah. Pisco.

Pisco - that’s three times for those of you who need repetition - is a Chilean or Peruvian+ brandy, distilled from grapes, in this case, white Muscat grapes.++ The very informative pisco-card, upon which all of The Brothers’ pisco-based drinks are listed, insists that it tastes like, but is more aromatic than, “100% agave tequila.” I was hooked by the enthusiastic prose and the possibility of something new, so I chose to indulge in a Chilean Cranberry Margarita, which was glossed as “Brewer Todd Leopold’s favorite of our pisco Margaritas” because of the tart/bitter cranberry was complimentary to the brandy’s natural flowery and fruity flavors, which apparently include “pear, strawberry, and lavender.”

I was expecting... I don’t know what I was expecting. Whatever it was, it was certainly not the best mixed-drink experience of my time in Ann Arbor. This stuff is amazing. Tequila has a kind of persistent rot-gut quality to it (maybe attributable to its natural acids “which can smell somewhat like sweat socks or a horse blanket”[!]), but is really quite pleasant in its finer incarnations (we’re not talking about José, my friends). Pisco seems the kind of liquor that really pops in a cocktail, much like the tequila The Brothers compare it to, but without that underlying sense of impending illness. The drink was well-made, with the alcohol’s flowery, fruity flavor strong and complimentary to the ingredients, and the sugar rim was fine and subtle, even a necessary accessory to the excellent cranberry juice (most of the time I find sugar-rimmed cocktails to be obnoxious, gag-me-girly, and saccharine – not so here).

Pisco, standing alone, is much as I expected: a sharp, clearish, unsweet brandy nevertheless bursting fairly with flavor. Leopold’s doesn’t carry it as a sipping liquor or a shot and I can see why, though the amicable barkeep (with a raised eyebrow) was willing enough to give me a quick sampling of the undiluted stuff upon my second trip to the well. Even without knowing that the brandy is derived from grapes, I think I could have sensed the almost grapeseed-oil-like flavor underlying the liquor, a kind of come-on-you strong kick that reminded me somehow of grappa, the traditionally Italian brandy made from the leavings of wine production – the skins, seeds, stems, and pulp of the grapes. Grappa, which I encountered and enjoyed once in Venice and once at the table of a professor of mine from Rome, is far earthier, spicier, and I think much rougher than pisco (in its non-Americanized version: evidently the Italians think we like sugar added to things... who would have guessed?) but it has that same oily-perfumey aftertaste. They’re about the same strength: alcohol content ranges from about 40-60% - not for the weak of heart. Evidently variations on grappa, made from all kinds of different fruits, are also popular in the Balkans; Bulgarians call their version “rakia” (in general) and the Muscat grape-derived brandy “muscatova.” I imagine it’s close in taste to pisco. I feel whole new horizons opening up. Experienced pisco, grappa and rakia drinkers: I am at your mercy (no, seriously. call me).

I’ll be going back to The Brothers’ place to check out more pisco-based drinks soon – on Wednesdays and Saturdays margaritas are $5, with a few happy-hour specials here and there, which makes them a far sight cheaper than most mixed drinks in this town, even if when full-priced they’re on-par ($6.50). Leopold’s also dabbles in the pisco equivalents of other tequila drinks (think “Pisco Sunrise”) as well as a rum-and-coke spinoff in the “Piscola” and the Chilean classic, the “Pisco Sour.” If you get hooked, 750/350 ml bottles of the brandy, as well as vodkas and gins, are available for $40/$20. Leopold Brothers is on South Main Street, right before the railroad tracks.

Next time: who knows? Have any suggestions? I’ll be your guinea pig! Toss an idea in the comments section or drop me an e-mail at omfjallen[at]msn[dot]com.

+ This is evidently a point of great debate. The Brothers go with Chilean, but Peru and Chile have been fighting over the brandy’s provenance for years. Check out for a Peruvian defense of what they are convinced is their heritage (I figure since The Brothers are supporting the Chileans, it’s only fair).

++Non-aromatic varieties of pisco, called “pure,” are made from non-aromatic grapes such as Quebranta, Molla, or Black grapes. See the above reference.

  1. I dare you go to the 8 Ball for your next review.

       —Brandon    May. 28 '06 - 04:52AM    #
  2. dude, totally. Are you buying my $2 Pabst? (or whatever they’re going for these days) how about a G&T well drink? I already have some great phrases to describe the ..ah…. “atmosphere.”

       —Heidi    May. 28 '06 - 07:40AM    #
  3. The 8 ball hasn’t been the same since they had to stop carrying Black Label in a bottle :-(

       —Just a Voice    May. 28 '06 - 04:54PM    #
  4. They don’t sell Black Label in a bottle in the US. IIRC, they bought the last cases and sold ‘em till they ran out.

       —Scott T.    May. 28 '06 - 07:57PM    #
  5. I had one of the Black Labels from the very last case served at the 8ball, it was a festive yet somber night. The Black Labels were only $1.25 for years. Things are pretty much the same as ever, except the internet jukebox sucks, it gives people with poor taste access to crappy music. I say bring back the jukebox that had The Replacements ‘let it be’ on continual rotation.

       —Rodney    May. 31 '06 - 10:06PM    #
  6. Thank you for the article. I am pleased to hear that our Pisco is finding favor.

    FYI, the Pisco is produced in the same manner that blended Scotch is: They send me multiple barrel samples. I chose the flavors and aromas that I prefer. They blend the barrels together,and ship it to us in Ann Arbor. Our pisco is more aromatic than pretty much any Pisco in the world. It is also higher in alcohol….45% abv.

    The Pisco comes from one of the America’s oldest farming Co-ops. Hundreds of Chilean farmers own a piece of the distilleries that process their grapes. They were a fun company to work with….even though it took me over a year to get through the red tape of having the Pisco sent to the US.

    Any other questions…fire away.

       —todd    Jun. 1 '06 - 04:21PM    #