Pisco Sour

November 22nd, 2007

Continuing the theme of brandies after Monday’s look at Calvados, tonight I’ve been sampling Pisco, the national spirit of both Chile and Peru. Pisco is made by fermenting grapes in to wine, and then distilling this wine in to a clear brandy. It has a sharp, fiery taste with an underlying fruitiness and a hint of sweetness.

It is generally agreed that Pisco began when wine that had been produced for export but deemed inferior quality were gifted to local farmers, who then took the wine and distilled it. However, that is about all that is agreed on – the origins of Pisco are very much in dispute, with both Chile and Peru claiming it as their own.

ABA Pisco bottle

The earliest known reference to Pisco is from the Spanish colonies of Peru, in 1613, and most of the evidence I’ve read seems to point towards Peru as the originator. However, this is muddied when you consider that the Spanish controlled Vice-Royalty of Peru at one point extended from southern Chile to the Caribbean – the Peru of today is not the same as that of 1613. Who knows, perhaps both countries started making it at a similar time and over the years the name was just applied to both. Truthfully, we will probably never know the real history of Pisco.

The way Pisco got its name is also in question. Some believe it comes from the town of Pisco, which in turn was named after the local bird which is called a Pisqu in the Quechua language. Others, meanwhile, assert it comes from the pot Pisco was stored in, called a Pisko, after the local inhabitants who were called Piskos.

To try out Pisco I could find no better cocktail than the famous Pisco Sour. You’ll be unsurprised by now to learn that Chile and Peru even argue over where this cocktail came from, each claiming it originated from a local port. Whichever country it was, it seems likely it was invented during the 1920s for the steam-boat passengers who were travelling past South America on the way to San Francisco.

Pisco Sour cocktail

Pisco Sour

The Pisco Sour has a relatively clean, simple taste. The lemon and sugar work remarkably well to tame the Pisco, allowing its flavours through but pulling back the fiery kick, producing a very drinkable cocktail. Thanks to the egg the drink has a lovely silky quality which I’m sure helps smooth out the roughness of the Pisco too.

A lot of people are wary of using raw eggs in cocktails. To be honest I was too at first, but the risk of salmonella is absolutely tiny – read Darcy’s excellent post on using raw eggs if you’re not convinced. The egg provides an amazing foamy head to the drink, which allows you to dash the bitters on the top. As well as looking good, this allows the wonderful aroma of Angostura to be the first taste that greats you as you bring the glass to your mouth.

I’ve only mixed up a few Pisco Sours so far, but I’ve yet to produce the large white head I’ve seen in some photos of the Pisco Sour. I’ve tried shaking the egg before adding the other ingredients, I’ve tried shaking it for ages and ages, but I still only get a small amount of froth. Any tips for getting the perfect Pisco Sour?

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Posted in Aromatic Bitters, Lemon, Pisco, Recipes

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10 responses to “Pisco Sour”

  1. Scomorokh Scomorokh says:


    It is a coincidence, but on this tuesday I ordered bottle of Pisco! And you information is very usefull for me.

    I make up one’s mind to prepare Pisco Punch, which has so similar ingredients – pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup, eggs white and angostura. Results you may see on my blog on next tuesday (I hope!).

  2. Jeff Phillips Jeff Phillips says:

    For a good Pisco Sour, consider using the liquid egg whites available at most grocery stores and shake with regular ice cubes (versus crushed ice) for at least ten seconds. The liquid eggs keep for a long time and are very convenient. Cheers!

  3. Mark Mark says:

    I use a recipe based on Toby Maloney’s (The Violet Hour, Chicago), and I think it’s one of the tastiest drinks I’ve made. The orange flower water is what makes the difference. By the way, the drops indicated in the recipe below are from eyedroppers. This allows you to be more precise with measurement.

    Note: More than two or three very tiny drops of the orange flower water will ruin the drink.

    2 oz. Pisco
    1 oz. Simply Syrup (50:50)
    1 oz. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
    5 drops Fee Brothers Orange Bitters
    2 drops Orange Flower Water
    1 Egg White

    1. Add first five ingredients to shaker.
    2. Shake vigorously without ice to froth.
    3. Add ice and shake very hard for 30 seconds.
    4. Strain into cocktail glass.
    5. Add a few drops of Angostura to the froth.
    6. Make design with toothpick and serve.

  4. nd nd says:

    Pisco sounds a lot like “aguardiente”, the all-pervasive fire water that’s drunk throughout the Mediterranean part of Europe (the Italians and Greeks have their own names for it, but it’s basically the same stuff)—even cachaça is very similar. Do you think either of these would make an acceptable substitute for Pisco? Try it and let us know!

    You should try whisking the egg whites for a few minutes before adding them to the drink; this should give the drink a very rich topping (make sure that there’s NO yellow in the white, though—the yellow prevents the whites from foaming properly).

  5. Marienza Marienza says:

    I am from Chile and 90% of the people that drink Pisco Sour in my country don’t put egg white on it, because smell like eggs and also it make the drink to soft.
    Another drink that you can make with Pisco is” Piscola” that 1oz of Pisco plus Coke and ice.
    Pichuncho = Pisco and Vermouth and ice.
    Enjoy it.

  6. Jay Jay says:

    Scomorokh – I was going to try the Pisco Punch as well for this post, but sadly ran out of time. I look forward to reading what you think of it.

    Jeff – I will have to try that. I’m not a huge fan of eggs, so it would be much easier than keeping fresh eggs in the house.

    Mark – I imagine the orange complements the other flavours very well in that recipe. I’ve never used orange flower water before, but I’ve seen it pop up in several recipes, so I think another order from The Bitter Truth is called for!

    nd – I have never tried aguardiente but I imagine any decent grape brandy would make a reasonable drink using the Pisco Sour recipe. It’s a classic sour, so really you can use any base spirit you like – just adjust the ratios to taste. Thanks for the egg white tips – I was careful to keep the yellow away, but will try whisking the white next time.

    Marienza – from what I’ve read, I understand that using egg whites is more common in Peruvian Pisco Sours. Pichuncho sounds nice – what ratio of Pisco to vermouth do you use?

  7. james clarkin james clarkin says:

    To Marienza

    I went to Chile last year and was amazed at how much of the premixed bottles of Pisco I drank. It was very cheap as all the supwermarkets had great deals on them. We went to Santaigo and there is a big supermarket in the shopping mall we bought 12 bottles and looked like alcos!!

    The sad thing is that no-one in the UK stocks it enjoy your Pisco Sour in Chile

  8. Megan Megan says:

    I visited Peru last year with my peruvian friend, we tried Pisco Sour
    oh goshhh!!! I love it !!

  9. LAndo LAndo says:

    I’m from Peru, and if you really want to know where Pisco came from then do a little bit of research. You can find out more about the name, the actual city of Pisco, located in Peru (Chile also has a city name Pisco, but if you do your research then you’ll find out the year this city was founded and the reason why it was founded). But, more important than the origin, you should also find out how the spirit is actually created, the whole process. Chile uses additives in their Pisco, Peru doesn’t, Peruvian Pisco is bottled straight after distillation, you can say Peruvian Pisco is pure. And, finally, both Pisco sours are made in different ways, the Peruvian includes egg whites and bitters, just like in whisky and Amaretto sours. Which one is better? Well, it doesn’t matter what I think, you should go ahead and try ‘em both ways and choose whichever you like best. I have nothing against Chilean Pisco, I just wanted to give you some facts. Salud!!

  10. Lucia M. Lucia M. says:

    The “perfect pisco sour” will obviously depend on the beholder’s taste – and politics. Nevertheless, I can offer a bit of information, at least from the Peruvian side, since I’ve lived in Peru my whole life and have tried all sorts of variations of pisco sour.

    First, the super foamy creamy top the original author of the post has “seen in pictures of the drink”. The first version of pisco sour had no egg white. It was derived by Victor Morris from an older cocktail named whisky sour (which had no egg white) at the beginning of the century, and it was later commercialized by him at the Morris Bar and publicized in several Peruvian and even Chilean and international newspapers and magazines (by the way, this documentary evidence is most relevant when tracing pisco sour back to its origins, arguing about patents, etc, which I personally prefer to leave to politicians and businessmen). An employee of Mr. Morris’ added the egg white at the Morris bar when Mr. Morris was getting old and not running the bar himself. And if you shake the pisco sour in a shaker, you will not get too much foam. Traditional bartenders don’t get too much foam, and they don’t try too hard or shake too long for it. The super-foamy, super-creamy version, however, is the most “popular” today (the most widely made at homes and family gatherings). The trick is simple: most people are making it in a blender in the kitchen at home, in large amounts, for lots of glasses, even take it out in a big pitcher, and then pour the glasses and add the Angostura bitter. You might want to try it this way at least once, just for the sake of experiment. Try putting the ingredients without the egg white in a blender, with several cubes of ice, and blend for a few seconds. (Traditional order is pisco first, syrup or sugar second, since the super strong Peruvian limes do not let sugar dissolve properly). Then add the egg white, and blend until the ice is completely disintegrated. Then check out the foam. Some people even put more egg white (and blend longer too) to get more foam and a super creamy taste, which is very nice indeed. This is popular just like the sweeter version is popular. Nevertheless, the most traditional, finer restaurants and bars will do it in a shaker, with less foam, drier, and with a little less lime. This is the old school way to do it (a relatively “small amount of froth”, 5-10 mm at the most, and not very “creamy”). And I have never been aware of anyone using anything other than fresh egg whites.

    The proportions in the above recipe are basically ok. The traditional version, however, is a pretty strong drink with three (not two) parts of pisco for one of lime and around one of syrup (less for a drier pisco sour, more for a sweeter pisco sour). I take my liberties with proportions and will use 1-3 parts of pisco depending on the occasion, but if old school guys are around, the official proportion is 3:1:1 (with a little freedom on the syrup) and the party will be more fun if they see this respected.

    As for the Angostura bitter, at least in Peru two drops is the way almost everyone does it. I have never seen more than two drops, I think, in the middle of the foam top. The Angostura bitter takes away the “egg” flavor and completes the traditional taste.

    You may want to take a few minutes and check out the following video (clearly quotes and shows historical published evidence which you can then look up if you want to do some serious research):

    I hope this is helpful. Not trying to defend any position, just to understand the diversity and share some information. Jay, I hope this answers your question about the foam mystery.

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