The Pisco Sour is, when you get right down to it, a pretty simple cocktail. It sounds exotic, sure, with its South American origins and lesser-known base spirit, but as a sour its recipe mimics some of the most basic (and classic) tipples out there. Despite that simplicity, though, it’s come to be the flagship of pisco drinks for one obvious reason: it’s absolutely delicious.
What Is Pisco?
At the heart of the Pisco Sour recipe is, of course, the pisco itself. For many here in North America, it’s something of an inscrutable spirit—the fact that there’s not a huge diversity of brands or, really, much explanation of what it’s made of has led to it often being forgotten on the back shelves of bars and liquor stores.
In reality, there’s not much mystique to pisco at all. It’s essentially an unaged brandy (or aguardiente) distilled from grape wine, so it’s no different in process from many other eaux-de vie. What makes it unique is that it’s made exclusively in Peru and Chile using local grape varietals, and the flavor profile reflects that geography.
Colonial records show that pisco was first developed by the Spanish in the early 1600s, but it was originally just used to fortify wine to help preserve it on long journeys back to Europe. Eventually, as it came to be consumed on its own as a spirit, it took on the name of the port city that spurred its popularity: Pisco, Peru.
As with so many classic spirits, though, there’s a little bit of nationalistic debate surrounding the exact origins of pisco. For at least four centuries now, Peru and Chile have been in a spat over which country can claim credit for inventing it, and there’s no end to the rivalry in sight.
Each country has its own, distinct style of pisco, and even their signature pisco drinks start to vary slightly once you cross the border. Records are muddled over where the early colonials first started distilling it, but it looks like Peru might have the stronger argument—that said, there doesn’t seem to be any definitive evidence one way or another, and we don’t want to get yelled at.
What Is a Pisco Sour, Then?
Despite what we just said, the variation in Pisco Sour recipes is actually pretty minor between Chile and Peru. They both consist of pisco (just different styles), lime juice (just different varieties of limes), and sugar or simple syrup. Where they typically deviate is that the Peruvian Pisco Sour uses egg whites and Angostura bitters, while the Chilean version leaves them out and sticks to the basics.
As far as most cocktail historians agree, the Pisco Sour was invented sometime between 1915 and 1922 by American expat bartender Victor Morris, owner of Morris’ Bar in Lima, Peru. It was originally devised as a variation on the Whiskey Sour recipe, and was made without the egg whites or bitters. Over the years, though, Morris and his employees tweaked the recipe until it took on the form of the modern-day Peruvian Pisco Sour.
Pisco was actually somewhat popular in the western United States, particularly San Francisco, through the end of the 19th century. Some argue that the Pisco Punch, invented by San Francisco bartender Duncan Nicol in the late 1800s, was actually a predecessor to the Pisco Sour, but it’s likely that this is more a product of convergent evolution than misattributing credit—pisco just happens to go really, really well with lime juice, sugar, and egg whites.
How to Make a Pisco Sour
The Pisco Sour is a relatively basic cocktail, like its cousin the Whiskey Sour, though especially when making one with egg whites it can take a bit of preparation.
To start, we have our typical admonition that you always use fresh lime juice—we’ve been over it a dozen times, but some people still insist on using citrus from concentrate. You’re more than welcome to, and we won’t judge, but the cocktail is going to be a hell of a lot better if you squeeze it yourself.
As for the egg whites, most of the challenge comes in the actual technique. Separating it from the and yolk is pretty straightforward, and we’ve found that this guide explains how to do it better than we ever could. Once you’ve got your egg white, you add it to a cocktail shaker with the rest of your ingredients (in this case, minus the bitters) and dry-shake it—i.e., shake it without adding ice—really hard for thirty seconds or so.
This helps to firm up the egg white into a frothy foam, which is key to getting that classic sour cocktail texture. After that, you add ice to the shaker and shake away some more. We recommend using a mesh cocktail strainer to strain the Pisco Sour into your glass, as it helps to concentrate the froth in a thick layer at the top of the drink. Just tap the strainer with the bottom of your cocktail shaker to get the last bits of foam out at the end.
Finally, the Angostura bitters are used as sort of a semi-garnish. Simply add two or three dashes on top of the frothy head of the cocktail, and you’re good to go. It makes for a great presentation, and the little hint of bitterness balances out the sweet and sour elements nicely.
Although it may take a little while to explain just what a Pisco Sour is, thanks to its somewhat unfamiliar spirit, it’s really not a difficult drink to make or enjoy. It’s getting easier to find great pisco in the US every year, and more and more craft cocktail bars are stocking a good selection of the stuff.
Plus, bartenders are notoriously restless. Give them an ingredient they’ve never used before, and they’ll almost certainly have a creative new recipe by the end of the night. We’re excited to see where the world of pisco drinks goes in the future, but for now, the Pisco Sour ain’t a bad place to start.
Photo: Cathrine Lindblom Gunasekara