From South America with Love
The Pisco Sour is one of only two truly great, classic cocktails originating in South America. The other being the Caipirinha from Brasil. The Pisco Sour is claimed as the national drink by both Perú and Chile. Pacific coast neighbours and historically fierce rivals.
It’s a simple Sour made from Pisco, sugar syrup, egg white, and the juice of the Limón de Pica. A citrus fruit native to the region. In taste this lies somewhere between lemon and lime juice, but typically we will use generic limes as a substitute. Though it contains no bitters in the drink itself, the traditional garnish is a row of three drops of Angostura Bitters into the froth.
If you have made significant progress through A Cocktail Education, then this information alone should allow you to make a good Pisco Sour. Of particular importance would be the Sours Taste Profile post and the Balance of Sour post. However, if you are needing clarification I’ll go through the mechanics of making a Pisco Sour in the final section of this post.
What makes the Pisco Sour both an incredible drink and a fascinating topic is Pisco itself. Since all the other ingredients have already been covered in their own posts, I’m going to focus on Pisco.
Pisco has a fascinating history. It’s essentially brandy. A spirit distilled from wine, which is fermented from grapes. However, Pisco is usually also a clear spirit. This is a stark contrast to the darker Cognacs we tend to picture when thinking about brandy. Much of the colour of dark spirits comes as a result of aging in barrels of particular woods. Pisco is typically aged for considerably shorter periods than French brandies. Or it is aged in glass or steel containers which do not affect the colour.
The history of Pisco begins with the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532. The Viceroyalty of Perú with the capital of Lima replaced it. It became the gateway for Spanish expansion into the interior of South America. Much like New York would later become the gateway for expansion into North America.
As you might expect, the Conquistadors who came to Latin America looking for conquest and plunder were hard drinkers. They brought plentiful supplies of brandy with them. But when those ran out they were stuck, since neither the Inca, Maya nor Aztecs had mastered the art of distillation. This meant that the alcohol content of their beverages could only reach the level at which it killed off the yeast which produced it. At best the result was beer-to-wine strength beverages. Not strong enough to satisfy the Conquistadors.
In Mexico the Conquistadors inherited an already existing system for the fermentation of the Agave cactus to produce a kind of beer called Pulque. They used this as a basis for distillation experiments. Thus began the story of Tequila.
The Conquistadors found no such pre-existing tradition in the Inca Lands to serve as a base for distillation experiments. But they did find a lot of land well suited to grape cultivation. They swiftly transplanted vines from the Canary Islands, and in 1553 wine production began.
Due to the soil, climate or grape cultivars, some Bodegas were better suited to brandy production than wine. Initially, brandy from the Viceroyalty of Perú was harsh stuff. Firewater. Its cheapness made it popular with sailors. Over time it came to be known by Pisco – the port from which it was primarily obtained.
Pisco production received a huge boost in 1641 when the Spanish Crown outlawed the importation of wine from the Viceroyalty of Perú. This could have been to protect Spanish wine producers from a flood of cheap plonk from the colonies. Or perhaps a more politically overt move to prevent the colonies becoming too powerful. Either way wine production in the region crashed, and most surviving Bodegas specialised in Pisco production instead.
So began a golden age of Pisco which lasted for centuries. It became a staple on ocean going vessels. It was the drink of choice for the Spanish Navy and their treasure fleets which supported the massive and powerful Spanish Empire. Pisco was principally drunk by common sailors, as the officers could afford higher quality spirits like Whiskey. Naturally it was more common where the Spanish projected power, especially in the Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans.
Competition and Conquest
What brought this golden age to an end? The gradual decline of the Spanish Empire and its replacement as a global naval and trading power by Great Britain.
The earliest colonies of the British Empire were Caribbean islands like Jamaica. The wealth of such places was in sugar. Molasses, from which rum is distilled, is a waste product of sugar production. So as sugar production increased, so did cheap rum production. It became a high volume, low cost affair. Combine that with the global trading links set up by the British Empire, and Pisco never stood a chance. By the 19th century Pisco had slipped from being ubiquitous at sea, to a nearly forgotten regional spirit.
The final nail in the coffin for Peruvian Pisco production was the War of the Pacific of 1879-1883. This was fought between the now independent nations of the old Spanish Empire. Chile on one side, and Bolivia and Perú on the other. Chile won the war hands down and seized vast tracts of coastal territory from the losers. These borders remain to this day. This included areas containing significant Pisco production, and inhabitants with the accumulated knowledge of centuries on the topic.
Pisco is originally a Peruvian product. There is no doubt regarding that. It’s just that Peruvian Pisco production collapsed so totally in the early 20th century this was no longer obvious. Since the 1940’s, Perú has begun to rebuild its Pisco industry and revitalize this former national icon, though with limited success.
Chile, however, did the same to its Pisco industry as it did to its wine industry. It brought in foreign experts to assist in building it up, and then specialized in developing a strong export market. As of the early 21st century, Chile produced perhaps 50 times as much Pisco as Perú. Little wonder then that most people think that Pisco comes from Chile.
Which brings us back to the Pisco Sour.
Just like with Pisco itself there are competing claims as to who created it, when and where. Both Perú and Chile claim it as their national drink. And records do exist placing its origins in both Lima and Santiago de Chile in the early 20th century. This is one battle where Perú has had the upper hand since the Pisco Sour was definitely introduced to the US from Lima. So Americans have always assumed a Peruvian origin.
It is not unusual for a cocktail’s origins to be shrouded in mystery. But this is one occasion when a little truth can be shone on the matter.
Records confirm that an Englishman named Elliot Stubbs settled in a town called Iquique in 1872 and opened a bar. There he experimented with making interesting drinks from the locally available produce – including Pisco and Limón de Pica. It is hard to imagine how he could have failed to produce at least a prototypical Pisco Sour given these circumstances.
At the time Iquique was in Perú, but was part of the territory annexed by Chile following the war a few years later. As such it makes perfect sense that from this original cradle both Peruvian and Chilean traditions could have developed independently. A prototypical Pisco Sour finding its way to both their capitals and developing independently in each into a “locally created” cocktail.
Recipe and Method
Alright, let’s get back to the practicalities. If you’re familiar with Sours in general you’ll find nothing surprising here.
A Pisco Sour consists of: two shots of Pisco, the juice of one lime; the white of one egg; and 10-15ml sugar syrup for balance.
Place all these ingredients in a Boston glass. Dry shake first to properly emulsify the egg white. Then wet shake as usual and strain into a short glass, adding ice after you pour if desired.
The classical garnish is three drops of Angostura Bitters into the foam.
On a personal note, I drank traditionally made Pisco Sours when travelling through Perú a few years ago. They were quite delicious, and exactly what I had expected. On the sour side but not too sour and with bitters in the foam. Having tried the original I can confirm the conventional wisdom that lime juice is the best generally available citrus juice to use. Lime juice alone produces superior results to either lemon juice alone or a lemon/lime combination.
However, I noted that they were traditionally served without ice. And in much smaller portions that is typical in the general cocktail world. Closer to a large shot glass than a small rocks glass.