Pisco Sour

Rick Cooks Home The Pisco sour is the national cocktail of Peru. Since the Spanish colonial Viceroyalty of Peru extended into what is now Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, this famous drink is also common in these countries, and served virtually any time people get together between tea time and dinner time. Since it’s sweet-tart, cold, and refreshing, you might even find it served as an aperitif before a late weekend lunch. It’s made from pisco, lemon (or lime) juice, and a sweetener.

The origin of the Pisco Sour is as obscure as that of the Margarita. We can be sure that it had to have been invented sometime in the 1930's, about the time when it became acceptable for women to drink alcoholic beverages in public. (Flavored sweet cocktails were invented to make distilled spirits more palatable to women and to expand the consumption of spirits by younger men and women.)

As it happens, the very first cocktails invented were probably "sours" or "sidecars," which were simple combinations: two parts strong, one part sour, and one part sweet. My guess is that the Limeys (British sailors who consumed limes to prevent scurvy) poured some gin (or rum, depending on availability) into their lime juice (or vice versa) to consume both their lime and rum rations at the same time. Later (perhaps a couple of hundred years ago), genteel society added sugar syrup or sweet liqueur, and the sidecar was born.

So it was only natural that someone, probably a European traveler, found out that the sweetened juice of the tangy-tart thorny lemon common in southern Peru and northern Chile complemented and softened the potent flavor of the pisco, and the Pisco Sour was born.

The Pisco Sour differs from the classic sidecar formula by using three parts pisco instead of two, and syrup instead of a sweet liqueur. Thus, it's more potent than practically any other cocktail except a Martini.

In the home, Pisco Sour is made by the pitcher, and every host (or hostess) prides himself on his technique and recipe and will expect appropriate accolades from his guests after the first sip. If the party is large, shortcuts may be taken and the resulting drop in quality will be noticeable. The most common offense is the overuse of ice, followed by the use of sugar in its granulated (or powdered) form, which never really dissolves.

A bartender Pisco Sour will usually be superior to the party pitcher. Good bartenders use freshly squeezed juice and a prepared simple (or flavored) syrup instead of sugar. He will also add a splash of a complementary liquor (such as vodka or whisky), which will not be detected but will increase the flavor complexity. Then he will shake the mixture with ice (and a little egg white to produce a foamy head) and strain. Finally, he'll serve in a glass whose rim is coated with powdered sugar, add a dash of angostura bitters, and garnish with a slice of limón. This is the classic Peruvian pisco sour.

In Chile, where pisco sours are also consumed traditionally, a lo peruano refers to the style (recipe), not necessarily the origin of the pisco. Another requirement for the Peruvian recipe is the limón de pica, a true lime (not the hybrid that we call limes), while Chileans are apt to substitute the larger and less costly lemon. Most Chileans agree that the best Pisco Sours are a lo peruano, while a minority consider the foam, bitters, frosted glass, and garnish as unnecessary adornments.

The classic recipe is 3 parts pisco to 1 part lemon and sweetener to taste. Since a 700ml bottle of pisco is about three cups, you’ll need a cup of lemon juice to make the classic 1-quart pitcher of Pisco Sour. The tricky part is determining how much sweetness is needed to balance the acidity of the lemon juice and the strength of the pisco. If you use strictly lemons instead of limes, the drink will be much too sour, and will have to be adjusted with additional sweetener.

I have heard that some expatriate Chileans have made passable Pisco Sours with frozen limeade and/or lemonade and even margarita mixes. I have also seen party hosts throw peeled lemons and limes into a blender with ice cubes, sugar and pisco. The mixture is then pulverized (seeds, pulp, and all) and served. This is what I call the frat-party Pisco Sour. Amazingly, the guests drink it with relish. Enough said.

Serious sour drinkers are aware of a wonderful new product from Peru called "Barman Pisco Sour Mix," a packet of powdered ingredients which is blended with water, pisco (or any liquor) and ice to produce eight small glasses of incredibly good sour. The result is nearly indistiguishable from a bartender peruano, and when speed and convenience are factored, surpass the classic, right down to the foaming head. This product is a sensation in Peru and Chile, but is to my knowledge not yet available in the U.S. I use Barman quite often, when time doesn't allow scratch preparation (which is most of the time), but I always add the juice of a fresh lime or lemon just to lend some legitimacy.

Various techniques are used to prepare a pitcher of Pisco Sour. The most common is putting the pisco and lemon juice in a blender with about a half cup of granulated (or powdered) sugar and blending briefly to dissolve, then adding ice and blending some more. (Sugar will not dissolve in cold liquid.) Overblending will bruise the the pisco and produce a slightly metallic aftertase. Some recipes call for powdered sugar or confectioners’ sugar because they seem to dissolve better. However, confectioners’ sugar contains cornstarch, and should never be used.

Rather than sweetening with sugar, try a simple syrup, which can be found in any liquor store. Or make it yourself, boiling two parts sugar to one part distilled water. (Boil carefully, reducing the water but not allowing the syrup to crystallize or scorch.) You can also experiment with a good commercial citrus-flavored syrup, such as the excellent Italian-style DaVinci lemon syrup or lime syrup. Never use corn syrup.

Mix all the ingredients at room temperature. If you must use a blender, "flash-blend" (pulse lightly). Then taste, adjust, and chill well. The colder the sour, the better the taste. No ice and minimum blending means better pisco sour. Serve from a crystal-clear pitcher into crystal-clear stemware (such as a sour glass or squall glass). The color is important.

After you’ve gained confidence making the classic pisco sour, try adding a touch of good triple sec (citrus liqueur), such as Grand Marnier (a sweet orange-flavored cognac), Cointreau (an orange liqueur), Curaçao (an orange liqueur), Limoncello (an Italian lemon liqueur), or Controy (a Mexican replica of Cointreau). These are the same triple secs that are used in making a top-shelf Margarita. In the right amount (be careful with the Grand Marnier), a tiny bit (no more than one ounce per pitcher) of one or a combination of these liqueurs will will intensify the flavor of the Pisco Sour without changing it. And a few drops of angostura bitters will also complement the sweet component.

Another good variation is the classic sidecar recipe, using two parts pisco, one part lime (or lemon) juice, and one part triple sec, omitting the sugar.

If you use any of the common commercial substitutes for premium ingredients in Pisco Sours and Margaritas, don't expect any compliments from your guests. The result will taste like a pre-mixed happy hour concoction. These substitutes usually contain artificial colorings and flavorings and corn syrup.

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Pisco Sour

*Bartender recipe (serves 1)*

1 lime
2 oz Pisco
sugar or simple syrup
cracked ice
egg white (optional)

Moisten the rim of a stemmed glass with lime and dip into powdered sugar. Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into glass. Add a drip of angostura and garnish with a small lime wedge.

If too sour, add a little more sugar or simple syrup.
If too strong, it's just right.