The name of the cocktail comes from pisco, which is its base liquor, and “sour”, a term used in various cocktails to indicate the addition of citrus juices and sweetener, as in Whiskey sour.
There is a friendly dispute between Peru and Chile when it comes to the origin of this cocktail. The Peruvian version of the pisco sour uses Peruvian pisco and adds Key lime juice, simple syrup, ice, egg whites as well as Angostura bitters. The Chilean version is quite similar, but it uses Chilean pisco, pica lime juice and powdered sugar. It does not include bitters and egg whites.
The Peruvian version of the pisco sour, which is the most famous version, is a very unique cocktail with a silky texture and a frothy top produced by emulsified egg whites.
But what is pisco anyway?
Pisco is an Incan word which means small bird. There is a valley, a river, a town, as well as a port bearing that name in Peru. The pisco spirit was originally shipped from that port, and took the name of the place of origin, just as Champagne, Port or Cognac did.
Whereas vodka, gin, tequila and rum are all made from vegetables, grass or grain like rye, potatoes, sugar cane or cactus, pisco is made from fruit. Indeed, pisco is made by distilling wine grapes into a high-proof spirit. The liquor was developed by Spanish settlers during the 16th century as an alternative to orujo (or aguardiente de orujo), a brandy made from pomace that was imported from Spain.
Pisco is a not a brandy though, as brandy, which is also made with grapes and not pomace, is typically aged in oak barrels which gives it its amber color. Pisco is traditionally aged between 3 and 12 months in copper alembic stills.
Pomace defines the solid remains of grapes (or other fruits) after being pressed. It contains the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of the fruit. This is the main difference between pisco and other popular grape liquors made with pomace, such as Italian grappa, French marc, German Tresterschnaps, Portuguese bagaceira, Hungarian törkölypálinka, Romanian rachiul de tescovina, or rakia known in Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Greece and Cyprus.
Interesting history bit that I just learned. There is a word used in France that defines bad wine: piquette. I never knew where this word came from. It actually comes from the Ancient Greek and Roman times. After they pressed wine grapes twice to produce good quality wine, the resulting pomace was soaked in water for a day and pressed for a third time. The remaining liquid was then mixed with more water to produce a thin, weak wine that eventually became known as piquette!
Talking about grapes and wine, the first grapevines were actually brought to Peru shortly after its conquest by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The largest vineyards in the Americas at that time were established in the Ica valley in the south of Peru.
The other unique ingredient in a pisco sour is Angostura bitters, a botanically infused alcoholic mixture that is made of water, ethanol, gentian, herbs and spices and that is now produced in Trinidad and Tobago. These bitters enter in the composition of other famous cocktails including the Pink gin, long vodka, Old Fashioned, Manhattan or Champagne cocktail.
And finally, a modern pisco sour always includes egg whites. I can already see a few of you not that enthused about the idea of raw egg whites in a drink, but trust me, just pick fresh raw eggs and enjoy this delicious cocktail the way it is supposed to be enjoyed. This is really what gives this frothy texture that is so unique to this alcoholic beverage. It also allows the bitters to stay on top and not sink.
And where does this unique cocktail come from?
There is some controversy about the paternity of the pisco sour. Although most people attribute the origin of this Peruvian cocktail to Victor Vaughen Morris, an American bartender living in Lima in the early 1900s, some argue that it existed before he made it famous.
Indeed, according to historian Luciano Revoredo, the combination of pisco with lemon would date as far back as the 18th century. At this time, the drink was named punche (punch) and it was sold by the slaves.
Then, a pisco-based cocktail recipe that included egg whites appears in the 1903 Peruvian cookbook Manual de Cocina a la Criolla (the same book where the first recipe of lomo saltado appeared).
Victor Vaughen Morris was an American who moved to Peru in 1904 to work in a railway company in Cerro de Pasco. He relocated to Lima in 1915 and, a year later, he opened Morris’ Bar, a saloon which quickly became a popular hangout for both the Peruvian upper class and English-speaking foreigners.
The initial recipe of his pisco sour was really an adaptation of the Whiskey sour: basically pisco, lime juice and sugar. It is now widely accepted that the modern Peruvian version of pisco sour was developed by Mario Bruiget, a Peruvian from Chincha Alta who worked for Morris in 1924. Bruiget added the Angostura bitters and egg whites to the cocktail. In 1929, after Morris’ health deteriorated, he declared bankruptcy and closed his saloon. He died a few months later of cirrhosis. Too much pisco sour? Only God knows!
During the 1930s, the cocktail became a hit in California, before spreading throughout the rest of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
In Peru, you can find it flavored with maracuya (passion fruit), aguaymanto (Peruvian ground cherry), apples and even coca leaf.
In Chile, you can find versions like ají sour (with spicy green chili), mango sour (with mango juice) or sour de campo (with ginger and honey).
In Bolivia, the Yunqueño version (from the Yungas region) uses orange instead of lime juice.
Pisco sour is so important to the heritage and culture of Peru that in 2003, the country created the “Día Nacional del Pisco Sour” (National Pisco Sour Day), a holiday that is celebrated on the first Saturday of February.
I made my first pisco sour last week and I immediately loved the smoothness and the balance of this cocktail, but most of all, I actually fell in love with the frothy layer and the Angostura bitters. I recently started to acquire a taste for whisky-based cocktails including Manhattan and Old Fashioned. Now, I know where this acquired taste comes from: Angostura bitters. They make all the difference! And no, I am not an alcoholic… or am I?
Last Thursday, my friend Gaby and I went to have dinner at Picca, a modern Peruvian cuisine restaurant that has become an institution in Los Angeles, and that I had not had a chance to try just yet, even though I live 5 minutes from it! On the menu: a delicious causa rellena with spicy tuna, a ceviche criollo and even a tres leches cake, revisited with yuzu. And this is where I learned some tips on making a great pisco sour from our barmaid.
I will make my next pisco sour tonight at the Peruvian cooking class I am hosting in Santa Monica. This is my fourth event and it should be a lot of fun. Let’s just hope I stay sober enough.
Recipe of Pisco Sour
Ingredients (for 1 glass)
- 2 oz pisco
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
1 egg white, lightly beaten
A few drops of Angostura bitters
Mix all the ingredients but the bitter in a shaker, and add enough ice to double the volume of the liquid mixture.
Shake vigorously for about 1 minute.
Serve strained in a cocktail glass and decorate with 1 to 3 drops of Angostura bitters.
Optional: Gently stir the top with a small straw or a toothpick to form a decorative pattern with the Angostura drops.