Interview with Mixologist Junior Merino of The Liquid Chef - New York, NY
Emily Bell: You use pisco in several of your cocktails. How do you see it being received by bartenders in the American market?
Junior Merino: Right now it’s not very well known, but I think the market is definitely open to experiment with Latin products, especially because of Latin culture and Latin restaurants and all the traditions. And of course the amount of Latinos that are in the Unites States. There are over 36 million Mexicans alone. The huge population of Latinos in the Unites States helps all the Latino products influence the American market. At the end of the day, Americans start to get used to Latin flavors and Latin spirits, start to embrace them and make them part of their culture. And, of course, part of the whole night scene—all the bars and restaurants.
EB: Do you think pisco will grow in popularity in the coming months or year?
JM: I think that pisco is definitely going to grow. Right now people don’t really understand. A lot of times it’s compared to grappa. People think it’s similar to grappa, but actually pisco is made from wine. Basically you have to start with a wine.
EB: How do you feel about Chilean versus Peruvian pisco?
JM: Both have a denomination of origin, both have right to make pisco. Each country has such a different style from one another. Of course both are amazing. They’re both good quality, it’s just their methods are completely different.
EB: How do you think people should choose which pisco to drink or mix with?
JM: I think people are going to make a decision which to go with just like choosing any other brand of whisky. Whisky is made in a lot of different countries, and at the end of the day, you choose which flavor you like best.
EB: How do you approach the variety of piscos behind the bar?
JM: It’s a Latin spirit, and I always tell people Latin spirits always have a connection. You can always identify something, a flavor or something that identifies a Latin spirit or Latin flavor. It’s very easy for me to use it.
EB: Do you think people understand the sheer variety of piscos and cocktail possibilities?
JM: Let’s say you go to Peru or Chile. You get piscos in 100 or 1,000 different flavors. You get Maracuya sour or a traditional cocktail—you get a lot of different drinks. Most people in United States would say "Oh that’s a fruity drink just because there’s fruit in it." But in most Latin countries, because of the varieties and accessibility of fruits, it’s normal for us to put fruits in cocktails. It’s not as hard to buy a passion fruit in Peru. Here you pay $4 for one passion fruit; in Peru you pay 20 cents.
EB: Do you think that perception takes away from an appreciation of traditional Latin cocktails?
JM: We’re working against a lot of stereotypes. A lot of people automatically assume a drink with fruit is automatically sweet, but it depends on the fruit or ripeness. It could be a simple as a raspberry or a strawberry. It could be could be as very sweet or ripe, [or] in between, sweet and sour, [or] very sour. Everything has a balance and everything has an acidity level.
EB: Why does pisco work well in the repertoire of Latin cocktails?
JM: In the case of pisco, one of the reasons why sour things are popular with Latinos is because it brings balance. It’s based on wine. We talk about wine, we talk about balance, acidity, fruitiness, and the flavors we obtain depending in type of grape, the process of fermentation, where it comes from, etc. We talk about tannins, we talk about all different elements. It’s what makes the composition of that wine. We never say, “I don’t feel the alcohol.” It’s not about the alcohol. It’s part to of the balance, part of the equation, the experience.
EB: What’s the advantage for the mixologist working with pisco?
JM: They’re not limited to just one drink, one style. You can drink it by itself or you can drink a mixed drink. You can always do whatever you want. It’s a product that is so flexible and unique, [a product] that has so many different varietals and so many different styles.
EB: Do you have a favorite pisco cocktail?
JM: It’s like having a favorite pisco. Honestly I don’t have a favorite of anything. It’s so complex, each one of them it’s like its own brand. It could be something as simple as a pisco sour. The way I make mine is completely different from the way everyone makes. What I look for is complete balance and harmony between the brand of pisco that I’m using.