By Colin Bennett
I hate to call it an “icon”, but that’s really the best way to describe what the pisco sour means for drinks in both Chile and Peru. After all, it is by far the most pleasant and recognizable way to enjoy this distilled grape brandy. Chile’s piscola seems better fit for student parties in parks, but anything mixed solely with Coca Cola can hardly climb the latter into “cocteleria”. And only a few well elaborated labels are worthy of sipping on the rocks.
This is not an attempt to comment on the origins of pisco, nor on who makes a better pisco sour, nor who really “owns” the name. That would only detract from what is an awesome way to kick off a dinner, a party or close out a meeting. A quick cruise through the nooks and crannies of the internet will yield three principal theories on the origin of the drink, and would suggest a truly Peruvian origin:
Probably the most popular: According to DePeru.com and based on a book by José A. Schiaffino, it was first made in Lima, in the Morris Bar by Californian Víctor V. Morris (Should we say that the US owns the pisco sour based on this? Or would that just be another example of Yankee Imperialism?). Or another version is that it was made by Peruvian bartenders at the same bar, in the 1920s.
According to Peruvian Historian Luciano Revoredo, who elaborates on a hypothesis from Guillermo Toro Lira, that frequent fights in Lima’s Plaza de Toros de Acho led to the prohibition of the sale of aguadiente, Pisco’s unmannered cousin, and led to the rise of a “punche” which involved mixing lemon juice with pisco.
The more controversial story, and one that has been refuted, that Englishman Elliot Stubb first made the pisco sour in Iquique, now part of Chile, but in 1872 was part of Peru. However historians have found that in fact Stubb only invented the Whiskey Sour. Still a worthy feat.
But its roots aside, and despite competing versions, Chile and Peru make their sour differently. There are many variations, but these could be interpreted as being the (very breakable) rule:
Peru: Take the small, limon de pica, South America’s key lime, squeeze 3 oz, mix with 1 oz of pisco, 1 oz of goma (sugary syrup), egg white (just a bit), ice and a few drops of angostura bitters.
Chile: Use a yellow lemon, squeeze to 3 oz of lemon juice, 1 oz of pisco, 1 spoonful of confectioner’s sugar, egg white (or not).
What makes them so different? It’s mostly in the acidity of the different kinds of limes/lemons. The yellow lemon is great for lemonade because it’s a very simple mixture, but in the sour you have three main elements: Acidity from lemons, sweetness, and the booze. Getting just the right balance is the key.
Since the yellow lemons are more acidic, the recipe is less forgiving. One must get the mixture just right. And since each lemons is different that means a greater challenge for that hotel barmen. In Peru’s recipe, the lime is much smoother, with an acidity that is easy to drink. So the perfect blend comes easier.
The sweetening also makes a difference. Too much confectioner’s sugar and it tastes like the over-the-top sweets found in Chilean pastry shops. I find the goma (made one part sugar, one part water and boiled), is also much better for blending.
The egg white can sound a bit strange depending on where you are from. But it’s an important element for the texture. From the white comes the foam, and it softens those hard edges of citric acid.
If your pisco sour was JUST made, it will be white from top to bottom, and after about 5 minutes it will start to separate. If the foam has come and went when it’s served at a restaurant, which means it was sitting around.
There are also variations on the ration of pisco to juice. Here is a good key:
3 to 1: It’s time to get wicked
2.5 to 1: My co-workers are coming over, and it’s time to get wicked.
2 to 1: My in-laws are coming over, I hope they don’t get wicked.
1 to 1: You are serving spiked lemonade, don’t be so wicked.
There is also an evolving commentary on the strength of the pisco. Some say, such as the pisco guide 40 Grados, the pisco should be 80 proof (40° as they say here in Chile), as 35° is watered down. Most of the Peruvian piscos start at 40°. Chile has 35° in abundance, with 40° reserved for the upper tiers. But some refute this most notable Eduardo Mulet, the award winning pisco maestro from Chile’s Horcon Quemada. It’s just a matter of taste he told me.
Also worth a note: If the sour is new to you, don’t have more than two in one sitting. It’s tempting to have more. But something about pisco lays havoc on visitors from the north. I’ve heard a story of a business man having to be rescued from a trout pond in a fancy wine hotel, all thanks to the pisco sour. Also because these are generally severed at the start of a meal on an empty stomach.
In either country, the race for the newest, latest and different sour has long been running. Many times this means substituting a fruit, potentially mango, for the lemons. Personally, that only gets my support if the mango juice is fresh. The mixtures just don’t do it justice. In Chile the tart maqui berry has been used, particularly in southern tourist destinations like Valdivia or Puerto Varas, closer to where it grows. Very nice addition, if you can ever find one. There are also versions using fresh honey or other alternative sweeteners in Chile.
But the best, by far, is the addition (not substitution) of the physalis. Known as the golden berry in Chile or aguaymanto in Peru, this tart but tropical burst adds a whole new dimension to the flavor. And the only place I’ve ever seen it was in Mistura. What better place to start looking?