MMV: Pisco Sour

Sours are among the oldest class of cocktails, and as mixology goes, they’re pretty basic stuff: mix booze, lemon and sugar, then chill and serve. Nothing could be easier, and from this base simplicity comes the sour’s true charm — after all, it’s nothing more than that sentimental classic, lemonade, assuming you make your lemonade with hard stuff rather than water.

I’ve already covered the whiskey sour, the most common “pure” sour still in circulation (assuming for a moment that you discount the daiquiri, which you shouldn’t, but swap the lemon for the lime and it appears that naming the drink is open to all comers), but one sour that’s popping up all over the place is the pisco sour.

Not that the pisco sour is anything new — no, this little number has been around the block a few times, ever since pisco had a brief role as the rotgut of choice around San Francisco saloons way back around Gold Rush days, when getting whiskey or rum to California meant loading it onto a wagon train, or onto a ship for a treacherous trip around the Cape. No, during that time, pisco had it easy — native to South America (Chile and Peru are still battling it out about who’s responsible), this grape brandy had a clear shot at the gold fields, at least until the transcontinental railroad came along and blew away that market. Granted, I can’t attest to how many pisco sours were served during that time — according to David Wondrich, in an article he wrote for Slow Foods USA a couple of years back, pisco punch was the way to go for quality drinking — but it’s impressive to see this spirit, and this drink, showing up on bar menus once again. Hell, the next thing you know, you’ll be able to stroll into your local sports bar and order an arrack punch.

OK, maybe that’s wishful thinking. But still, hone in on a pisco sour. Like the rest of the sours, the pisco sour is defined by its simplicity: pisco, lemon, sugar. Done? Not quite. Sure, you could stop there and mix it as usual, and you’d have a fine drink, but a really alluring pisco sour requires a couple of extra steps. First, stick a raw egg white in there — no, really, all you squeamish types who are scratching this drink off the list, try this just once: Get a really fresh egg, rinse it off, then crack it and separate it (if you need that explained to you, go grab your Joy of Cooking) — introduce the white into your mixing glass (one white works well for two drinks), then, after you add all the other ingredients and your ice, shake extra hard, for about 10 seconds. This aerates the white — kind of like you’re making meringue in your cocktail shaker — and gives the drink extra body, the kind of hearty gumption it’s nice to see in a drink sometimes.

Then — and this is the pisco sour’s other unique attribute — after you’ve strained your drink into a glass, drip three or four drops of Angostura bitters on the foam. Why not mix it in? Easy — because, now that you have that nice foamy head the egg white gives you, the Angostura remains somewhat suspended at the top of the glass (some blossoms nicely in the drink, of course). As you raise the glass to take a sip, the first thing you experience is the aroma of the bitters, followed by the slight funkiness of the brandy and the sour of the citrus, all with a texture like liquid silk. Nice? Absolutely.

OK, before I give the recipe, there’s something that needs to be said: while Peru and Chile still wrestle over the origins of pisco, there is also a continuing debate over what’s most appropriate to use in a pisco sour: lemon or lime. The answer, of course, is whichever one you prefer, and to find out which is the case, you should try both. Tonight, however, start with lemon, for two basic reasons: lemons are the citrus of choice in the classic sour; and, today is Mixology Monday, hosted by Jonathan over at Jiggle the Handle, and Jonathan’s chosen topic is Lemon. Be sure to jog over there and check out all the other drinks that are coming up this week.

Pisco Sour

  • 2 ounces pisco
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons simple syrup (or 1 teaspoon sugar)
  • 1/2 of an egg white
  • 3-4 drops Angostura bitters

Shake everything except bitters ferociously with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass (or, you can use a Champagne flute—I had one served this way once, and it made a pleasant impression). Drip the bitters on the foam topping the drink.

11 Responses to MMV: Pisco Sour

  1. any suggestions for which pisco? wiemax carries

    PISCO CAPEL 80-proof “Reservado”
    ALTO DEL CARMEN 80-proof
    MONTESIERPE 84-proof
    INCA PISCO 84-proof

    since i’m planning to order some lemon-hart from them, and i have to order a case before they’ll ship, i need some variety to fill out the order…pisco sounds like a good choice, but which?


  2. […] Finally, I came home with a dozen lemons and a bottle of high-proof Stoli. Coincidentally, the same day I brought home the stuff, I got the latest issue of Imbibe magazine, which had a photo essay (with text by Paul Clarke), showing how to make limoncello. […]

  3. I don’t know if I can advise you on brands — I use Pisco Capel, simply because it’s the easiest brand to find in Seattle. Though I’ve heard that, if possible, you should shoot for the Peruvian versus the Chilean pisco.

  4. I use Pisco Control Reservado. One guy (Gabriel) I use to work with was from Chile, and this is the one he recommended. He said that a lot of the “pisco’s” you see now are just made for export. If you went to Chile Pisco Control would be common.


  5. Great recipe for the Pisco Sour. Lemon juice is preferred over lime. Liquid egg whites work great instead of cracking an egg and they’re available at most grocery stores (organic varieties at Whole Foods, Trade Joe’s, etc.) I use a new Chilean Pisco on the market called FUEGOS pisco

  6. Chilean Pisco vs Peruvian Pisco…whats really the difference? Well, just look at the color for one. Peru is clear, Chile is amber. Chile uses aprox 3 kilos of grapes per liter, Peru uses about 7 kilos. It makes a HUGE difference in taste. Peruvian piscos are 100% grape, where Chilean Piscos are part grape, part water and part alcohol to obtain the 40% alc/vol they desire.

    Also, in Peru we have 7 varietals of grapes used in production, you can find several expressions from the same distilery. This is not the way Chilean Pisco is done.

    I feel a bit biased towards the Peruvian Pisco, but at least this little tidbit of info should help clarifiy a bit about production.

    Now when talking about Pisco Sours, I saw Three Sheets on MOJO the other day about Zanes trip to Chile. I was literally jumping out of my seat trying to scream at the TV. They made a Pisco Sour that looked like a Margarita! This IS NOT A PISCO SOUR. The original Pisco Sour, as created by American bartender in Lima close to 100 years has a distinctive froth at the top created from shaking the egg white into the cocktail.

    The angostrua bitters are also just used as a garnish, not supposed to be mixed into the drink.

    it was unfortunate to think that tons of people would watch this show and not know how a realy Pisco Sour is made…

    One more key to the Pisco Sour more… try a dry shake with all your ingredients first intoa shaker minus the ice. SHake the crap out of the igredients, then add ice and shake again. Strain it into a glass and you’ll be sooo proud of yourself for having created the collest looking foam on your drinks!!!

    If you want any info about Pisco production or what Piscos you should look for, dont hesitate to email me… My family produces Pisco in Peru and I represent a few brands in the US and abroad.


  7. Pisco punch was an alcoholic beverage invented by Duncan Nicol at a bar named Bank Exchange at the end of the 1800s, in San Francisco, California. The Bank Exchange was located in south-east corner of the intersection of the Montgomery and Washington streets, in the Montgomery Block building, where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands.

    History of Pisco brandy
    Pisco is a late 16th century Peruvian brandy made from grapes. It was available in San Francisco since the 1830s when it was first brought from Pisco, Peru by rawhide and tallow traders trading with California towns. During the California Gold Rush of 1849 the brandy was readily available in San Francisco.

    The grapes grown are Muscat grapes. (pronounced moose-kat). They grow on the volcanic soil in and around the port of Pisco. Pisco brandy, was the first distilled spirit made in the new world. As there were no glass bottles in the 16th century, the brandy was shipped in ceramic (clay) containers sealed with beeswax. The wax marinated the brandy, giving it a half-tone of honey flavor.

    In 1839, early in the year, the brig ” Daniel O’Connell,” an English vessel, arrived at Yerba Buena from Payta, Peru, with a cargo of Peruvian and other foreign goods, having on board a considerable quantity of pisco or italia, a fine delicate liquor manufactured at a place called Pisco.

    Chapter xxxi, page 249 et. seq.


    History of the drink
    When the Bank Exchange & Billiard Saloon opened its doors in 1853 it served pisco among other several liquors. Several punches were made using pisco at the Bank Exchange over a long succession of owners, ending in 1893 with Duncan Nicol. Nicol was the last owner of the Bank Exchange when it closed its doors permanently in 1919 because of the Volstead Act.

    Duncan Nicol invented a pisco punch recipe using: pisco brandy, pineapple, lime juice, sugar, gum arabic and distilled water. The punch was so potent that one writer of the day wrote “it tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer.” Others said “it makes a gnat fight an elephant.” Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine wrote in 1937: “In the old days in San Francisco there was a famous drink called Pisco Punch, made from Pisco, a Peruvian brandy… pisco punch used to taste like lemonade but had a kick like vodka, or worse.”

    Pisco Punch gained fame worldwide thanks to pieces written by travelers including Mark Twain and Harold Ross (founder of “New Yorker” magazine). In Rudyard Kipling’s 1889 epic “From Sea to Sea”, he immortalized Pisco Punch as being “compounded of the shavings of cherub’s wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters.” Unfortunately, Prohibition closed the doors of the Bank Exchange; and Duncan Nicol died soon thereafter- supposedly taking the exact recipe to his grave.

    Since then many bartenders and mixologists have offer their own interpretations of Pisco punch, often using lemons instead of limes or adding ingredients not found in the original such as ginger.

    Luckily in 2006, after painstaking research, Nicol’s original recipe for Pisco Punch was rediscovered by Guillermo Toro- Lira, a Peruvian national living in the Bay Area and a self styled cocktail historian. To read more about his discovery and the historical figures involved – see his book Wings of which won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award 2007 as the Best Wine Literature Book of the World written in Spanish and is also available in English. Although he gives a recipe in the book, he purposefully left out one secret ingredient.

    In early October 2008,Pisco Latin Lounge [[1]]opened in San Francisco at 1817 Market Street with Toro-Lira as a partner. Including the one ingredient left out of his published recipe, it is the only bar where “Original Recipe” Pisco Punch is available to the public.

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