The Pisco Sour

pisco-sour
The weather is getting better out there folks. It is the height of Spring, and most of us are adjusting our lifestyles to being outdoors more. Perhaps you’ve just experienced your first spontaneous sweat walking from the car to the office or the stores. Regardless, the heat is coming, and with it will come thirst.
Most of us change our cocktail repertoire with the seasons, and I have a suggestion to add to your balcony or backyard evening list: The Pisco Sour.
I’ve been making these for several years now, ever since I got ahold of my first bottle of Pisco, and there simply is nothing bad to say about this drink. It tastes great and has absolutely everything a great classic cocktail should.
I’ll start with the recipe, or should I say the recipe that I use. About half of you who are already familiar with the Pisco Sour are about to stand up and exclaim, wait a minute…! Bear with me, I’m just setting up so we have a frame of reference to discuss all those things that make this a great classic cocktail, besides the fabulous, evocative name.

PISCO SOUR

    boston-shaker-wide
  • 2 oz. Barsol Pisco
  • 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz. simple syrup
  • 1 egg white
  • 1-2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Combine ingredients in shaker with the largest ice cubes you have. Shake extensively until the whites form a nice foam (a Boston Shaker with a glass half is handy for telling when it’s ready), then strain into a champagne flute.

The result is a pale russet drink with a creamy head of foam. The flavor is sweet, tart, and complex, but seems much less potent than it actually is. It is particularly refreshing when it’s hot and the drinker is weary. That simply makes the Pisco Sour good. What makes it great is all the backstory, showmanship, and other fun there is to be had with it. Truth be told, it is a drink for cocktail snobs or pros to make and to serve. It requires ingredients not found in most home bars (or commercial ones for that matter), and you need either a little skill or just a little extra time to whip one up. And you can get a good fifteen minutes of conversation out of simply describing its background. But while the Pisco Sour is more than interesting enough to hold the affections of the sophisticated cocktailian, it is accessible enough to make the everyday wine or beer drinker who takes a dubious sip exclaim, Hey! That’s pretty good!
barsol-quebrantaThe base spirit, pisco, is commonly in the US casually referred to as, Peruvian Brandy. While true as far as it goes, the phrase is misleading shorthand akin to saying genever is a gin, or cachaça is a rum. The pisco I specified in my recipe is Barsol Quebranta. It is a high quality spirit that is reasonably commonly available in the US. The Quebranta in the name refers to the variety of grape used to make the brandy. I use it because it is reasonably priced, I can get it in Ohio, and it tastes good. In the interests of full disclosure, Barsol sent me a bottle of their pisco for review a while back. But that bottle is still unopened, as I am still working through a bottle I bought for myself shortly before! I thank them nonetheless, as I’m now set for most of the Summer.
An exotic ingredient is something that adds snob appeal to a cocktail. An exotic ingredient with controversial origins adds fun. I’ve written in the past of how the Mint Julep was a lot more fun when Kentucky and Maryland were constantly wrangling over who invented it and what should be in it. Peru and Chile are the same way with Pisco, except that Kentucky and Maryland were never simultaneously at loggerheads over who got title to West Virginia.
Another hallmark of many great cocktails is the ability to set the connoisseurs to arguing among themselves about its construction. The main argument surrounding the Pisco Sour has the added benefit of being both humorous and interesting in contexts way beyond the drink itself. The question is: lemon juice or lime? The peruvian recipes call for lemon, or limon perhaps. But virtually any peruvian bartender will reach out and grab the little green fruit when making a Pisco Sour. The thing is, in Peru, they call lemons limes, and vice versa. Moreover, the yellow fruits they call limes are apparently sweet enough to be directly edible! I first learned this all from Drink Boy, Robert Hess, in his video podcast from the Small Screen Network. It takes up most of the middle of his video on preparing the Pisco Sour, which you can see by clicking on the screenshot below. (I’d embed it, but I can’t figure out how to turn off autoplay. You are welcome.)
robert-hess-thumb
All that said, I still use lemon juice. Why? I think it tastes better. Your mileage may vary, so try both and see which makes your boat float.
Further wonkish discussion may be had on how best to construct the drink. Unlike many cocktails, the shaking performs two functions. It chills the drink, of course, but it also provides a critical mechanical process. Beating up egg whites does two things to the proteins inside. It uncurls the molecules from their natural state, which allows them to stick back together in new ways, and it introduces a lot of air into the mix, so that when the proteins start attaching back together, they form bubbles. In the video above, Robert recommends dry shaking the ingredients first to generate the thick and creamy foam, then shake with ice to chill the drink. His reason for this is that it takes a lot of agitation to generate the foam, but comparatively little to chill the drink. If he shakes the drink just until your Pisco Sour is properly chilled, you won’t get much of the creamy foam. If you shake until the foam forms, the drink will be watered down. But the dry shake, then ice shake method is time consuming, and leaves you with tired arms. If you were serving Pisco Sours in a cocktail lounge, your bartenders would need back staff just to do all the shaking, or else end up with freakishly large arms. Now, I just did a post on ice, and that research (spurred by Reese) along with Robert’s video leads me to suggest a better way. Note that the ice Robert uses is fairly small, and served up from an ice bucket. It is probably already at the melting point, and its shape has a lot of surface area. If you shake your Pisco Sour with ice like this, you will indeed have a tiny head, or a watery drink. When I make mine, I use my large cube ice from the back of my chest freezer (which I usually reserve for drinks on the rocks) These are cold and have less surface area than ice from my ice maker or from an ice bucket. Cold ice dilutes and chills the drink more slowly than warm ice (really!), giving more time for the whites to open up. Also, the presence of ice increase the impacts inside the shaker and speeds the foaming process.
Was that wonky enough for you?
The really great thing about all these options is that the Pisco Sour is relatively bullet-proof. No matter how you shake it, which juice you choose (lemons or “lemons”), or minor variations in ratio you may make, the resulting drink will be attractive, refreshing, and delicious. If you are serving people who don’t know the cocktail, you have a ready-made monologue with which to show off for educate your guests. And if they do know the Pisco Sour, then you have a ready made argument about how you are mixing it, which for many of us is even better!

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

7 Comments

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  • I made mine with limes – it was the fruit I had in the fridge – and used Ocucaje Pure Pisco. The bottle had a recipe for the drink on the back and it called for lime juice. It stared out tasty, but got a bit noxious by the end. I’ll try it again with lemon – perhaps then it won’t taste like an overly sweet Pegu.

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  • I serve this cocktail on regular basis at our lounge using lemons. I read somewhere that the green lemons that are used in South America have slightly bitter bite to their tartness so i slip a cheeky dash of Fee Brothers lemon bitters in. A lovely little twist in my opinion is the addition of 1-2 bar spoons full of fino sherry. It delivers powerful aromatic punch that lingers for quite some time on your palate.
    P.S. love your writing Sir. thank you for your blog

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  • Here is another great Pisco Sour Recipe. 2 1/2 oz. Gran Sierpe Pisco, 2 oz. lime juice, 1 oz. sugar or simple syrup, 1 teaspoon egg white.

    Also if you want to try an spicy pisco drink, try a “Snake Eyes” : 2 oz. Gran Sierpe Pisco, 1/2 oz. passionfruit puree, 1/2 oz. Mango Puree, 1/2 oz. lime juice, dash of Jalapeno paste, fresh basil garnish. Enjoy!

    If you like pisco, check out discoverpisco.com

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  • A tip I picked up from Murray at ZigZag in Seattle when making sours and other drinks with an egg white is to disaasemble a classic drink strainer and place the spring in the Boston shaker to aid in frothing up the the egg white.

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