It started when a man fell in love with pisco.
Written by Anneli Star Josselin Rufus
After falling in love with the grape-based spirit pisco while studying in South America — and before moving to Berkeley — Charlie O'Connell hatched a plan to produce a sustainable, pisco-inspired, locally crafted spirit in the Bay Area.
Newly launched onto the market by San Francisco's North Channel Spirits but nearly twenty years in the making, Frísco is a 45 percent ABV unoaked brandy made with California-grown Muscat grapes, double-distilled on a copper-pot still, then completed via a unique type of charcoal mellowing process, it's available at a growing nunber of nearby bars, including The Fat Lady in Oakland.
O'Connell kindly agreed to let me interview him.
ASJR: What is it that you love so much about brandy -- or loved so much initially about pisco -- that you decided to start making it?
CO: Brandy is amazing! It’s basically distilled grape juice :-). Really though, brandy has a lovely complexity and lots of variety. I became particularly fond of unoaked grape brandy after discovering pisco while living with my host family in Santiago, Chile, while studying abroad in college. In South America, we drank it all the time and I even brought a few bottles back to the States. Everyone loved it!
When I got back to the States, I looked into importing pisco, but couldn’t figure it out. I kept it in mind, though. It wasn’t until fifteen years later that I ran into my cousin, Woodson Swift, in Asia where I lived for five years. He had studied wine at UC Davis and when I asked him about researching brandy, he was down. Using Woodson’s knowledge of California wines we began experimenting in his parents’ garage in Petaluma. After just two years and countless iterations, Frísco was born.
ASJR: Why do you think brandy has remained relatively undiscovered in American bars until recently?
CO: Well, it’s actually more of a disappearing and reappearing act. Brandy was the first American spirit and many classic cocktails, like The Sidecar and French 75, use brandy. At some point, brandy became split into a very expensive aged category (associated with grandparents, snifters, and libraries) and a very cheap, unaged category (based on cheaper ingredients passed over by virtually everyone else) — neither of which was attractive for people who wanted quality cocktails at reasonable prices.
Recently, a number of great American brandies have come to market that are delicious and approachable. Frísco has managed to work with domestic, sustainable vineyards to obtain fresh, quality wine that has a beautiful flavor on its own, with no need for aging after distillation ... not to mention an appealing price point.
ASJR: Why do you think it is finally at long last gaining (or regaining?) popularity here?
CO: I think there are several complimentary catalysts helping to drive the resurgence of brandy, and American brandy, in particular. First, I feel like now, more than ever, today’s craft cocktail community – mixologists, bartenders, enthusiasts, etc. – has a renewed appreciation for classic spirits. What’s old is new again.
Also, today’s consumer is conscious of where their food, and increasingly, where their drink comes from. Drinking local is just as important as eating local. Instead of farm-to-table, we explain that Frísco is farm-to-flask. We take pride in sourcing quality wine, so that we can guarantee a quality finished spirit. And the fact that we’re 100 percent sourced and produced in the US – and particularly here in the Bay Area - is attractive to both consumers and bars and restaurants. I love speaking with people about brandy and telling them about its history and our process. And I think that American brandy producers — Frísco included – are really invested in keeping the legacy of this great spirit here in America alive, and offering a transparent lens into our process and unique individual story.
O'Connell also offered us these handy recipes:
Frísco French 75
- 1 oz Frísco
- ½ oz Lemon Juice
- 4 oz Prosecco
- Lemon twist for garnish
Add Frísco and lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a champagne flute. Top with Prosecco and garnish with a twist of lemon.
- 1 oz Frísco
- 1 Teaspoon fig syrup
- 4 oz Malbec red wine
To make fig syrup, add a tablespoon of fig preserves to ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of water in a saucepan. Heat on stove until simmering and sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool. Combine all ingredients in a shaker, add ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled coup glass.
- 1 oz Frísco
- 2 oz blood-orange juice
- 3 oz champagne
Chill all ingredients. Pour the first two ingredients into a shaker filled with ice. Shake well. Pour into the champagne flute, then top with a splash of champagne.
- 1 ½ oz Frísco
- ½ oz ginger liqueur
- 3 oz pear juice
- Slice of pear for garnish
Add all three ingredients to a shaker. Shake vigorously and strain over ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with a slice of fresh pear.