Peruvian Pisco Sour
The pisco sour is Peru’s national drink and renowned as one of the world’s greatest cocktails. It’s a source of great pride for many Peruvians and a drink that many visitors to the country fall in love with.
The cocktail is made with pisco, a brandy-like liquor that’s been produced in both Peru and Chile for centuries. To make a pisco sour, the base liquor is combined with citrus juice (the sour component), sugar syrup, bitters, egg white and ice. The result is a drink with a silky and slightly frothy texture, that surprises you with its balanced yet rich and complex flavour. The taste is quite distinctive and strikes the perfect blend between acidity and sweetness. Pisco sours are a great way to start a dinner as the citrus flavours stimulate the appetite. The drink is also notoriously strong as pisco varieties range from 60 to 100 proof.
Read on to learn more about the pisco sour, including its controversial history and cultural importance in present day Peru. Find out about the best place to try this classic drink whilst in Lima and learn to make one for yourself!
The Origins of the Pisco Sour
The history behind the pisco sour is rather clouded, a bit like the drink itself in fact! The generally accepted story is that the cocktail was invented by American expat Victor Morris who opened a bar in Lima in the early 1920s. He experimented with various mixes in a bid to recreate his beloved whiskey sours (without the whiskey) and eventually came up with the pisco sour. However, the modern version of the cocktail wasn’t finalised until the late 1920s when bartender Mario Bruiget added Angostura bitters and egg white to the concoction.
Some historians claim that it’s possible to trace the origins of the drink back much further by following the emergence of the pisco base itself. This liquor has been produced in Peru for hundreds of years, ever since the time Spanish conquistadores shipped grapes into the country so that they could make wine. Leftover grapes were distilled to create a strong brandy which acquired the name pisco after the port where it was produced and exported. There’s also evidence to suggest that pisco was combined with lemons to create a drink reminiscent of the modern cocktail as early as the eighteenth century.
The first mention of the pisco sour appeared in the Peruvian press in 1921, and then again in 1924 in an advertisement for Morris’ Bar. Ever since this time the drink has gained rapidly in popularity. It spread as far north as California by the 1930s, reached New York by the 1960s and caused much stir among Lima’s elite. During the 1940s and 50s, many Hollywood actors and other English-speaking guests in Peru, including Ava Gardner, Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, were known to rave about the signature drink.
The Pisco Sour Today
The pisco sour is a source of significant controversy in popular culture between Peru and Chile, with Chileans disputing the above story and also claiming the cocktail as their national drink. They maintain that the drink was invented by Englishman Eliot Stubb on Chilean soil as early as 1872. Chileans also assert ownership over the base liquor and the right to produce and market pisco is still a source of ongoing dispute between the two countries. The fact that Peru and Chile once shared the same territory certainly confuses matters. However, many now refute the Chilean story in light of evidence suggesting it likely refers to the creation of the whiskey sour. Moreover, in a recent victory for Peruvians, the European Commission recently recognised Peru as having patrimony over the drink.
Today, the drink is so popular in Peru that the first Saturday of every February is an official nation-wide public holiday celebrated as “National Pisco Sour Day". On this day, its tradition for Peruvians to finish a Pisco Sour before the end of the national anthem. Admiration for the drink has also spread internationally. Last year, London held a week-long festival dedicated to the liquor, whilst exports to the US have increased significantly in recent years.
The Perfect Pisco Sour
As previously mentioned, the Peruvian pisco sour is a mix of pisco, egg white, citrus and Angostura bitters. However, there are several different versions of this classic drink that divide enthusiasts worldwide. The Chilean cocktail excludes the egg white and bitters. In Bolivia, a similar drink is the Yunqueño which replaces the lime with orange juice. In Peru and elsewhere, variants have also been created using fruits such as pineapple and maracuya and plants such as coca leaf.
There are also considerable variations in the different types of pisco used. For example, in Peru, pisco is created from the grape itself and is un-aged, whereas Chilean pisco is a distillate of wine that is aged in wood barrels for long periods to achieve a distinctive taste.
Here, we’re focusing on the Peruvian version. If you’re in Lima we recommend heading to the Grand Hotel Bolivar which is considered by many as the keeper of Morris’ original recipe. Otherwise, you can always whip up your own pisco sour at home with this delicious recipe:
Pisco Sour Recipe
The typical combination is 3 parts pisco to 1 part lime juice to 1 part syrup. You can cut back a bit on the pisco for a milder version.
1 ½ cups Pisco (especially good quality versions include Pisco Acholado and Pisco Mosto Verde)
For the syrup: ½ cup sugar and ½ cup water
½ cup key lime juice
1 ½ cups ice
3 egg whites
Angostura bitters for garnish
First of all, make the syrup by combining the sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to the boil over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and leave to chill.
Place the syrup, lime juice, pisco and ice in a blender and blend at high speed.
Place the mixture along with the eggs whites in a cocktail shaker and shake it up until frothy.
Serve in small tumblers, adding a drip of bitters into the middle of the foam. Ideally the foam should be thick enough so that the bitters will float on top of the drink and not sink into the liquid below.