Although those drinks have been around — and remained popular — since the dawn of the 20th Century, my favorite version came into being in, by most accounts, the late 1800s. It’s the Pisco Sour, the main ingredient being the South American brandy in the name which predates the cocktail itself by about 400 years.
You can get a pretty good one at a number of New York Metro spots. Perhaps the best is at a restaurant of the same name — Pisco Sour, located at 3617 Greenpoint Avenue in Long Island City (718-392-0007).
Pisco itself is a delightful distillation of grapes. The name comes from the Peruvian town of Pisco, which in turn got its name from the indigenous Quechua language word for a type of bird abundant in the region or, perhaps more to the point, the Pisku people who ruled in pre-Incan times.
However, credit for the creation of pisco remains a matter of intense debate between aficionadoes in Peru and Chile. At the time of its creation, what now is Chile was part of Peru. Many of the muscat grape vines that produced the fruit used to make pisco were transplanted to central Chile. Early in this century, Chile began a major marketing campaign claiming ownership of pisco as its national drink. But, Peru may have gained a slight edge in 2003 by declaring a National Pisco Sour Day be marked on the first Saturday of every February.
Rather than take sides, I like to credit the Spanish throne for the invention of pisco by banning wine in its Peruvian-region colonies in the 17th Century, thus pressuring the locals into coming up with a new form of adult beverage. It probably is no coincidence that the Spanish Empire, embarking on a long line of bad decisions, slipped into a prolonged decline at about that point.
The whole pisco thing came to mind the other day when I was enjoying several of them in El Serrano, an elegant Peruvian/Mexican restaurant in Lancaster, PA, located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country where I was vacationing. (Hey, we’re a melting pot, right?)
I was explaining to my dinner companions that the traditional pisco sour contains the clear brandy, lemon or lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and bitters of whatever sort is locally available. But, to avoid lulling them into a stupor, I had greatly simplified. The history of pisco goes much deeper.
In his book “Wings of Cherubs,” Guillermo Toro Lira said a version of the drink emerged in the Viceroyalty of Peru (created in A.D. 1542), with a pisco-and-lemon mixture known as “punche.” The drink had made its way to the U.S. by the early 20th Century. One of its more popular proponents was the Bank Exchange Bar in San Francisco which made it with the brandy, lemon and pineapple. In between those years, numerous stories were published in various countries giving credit for the invention of the Pisco Sour — and its several recipes — to various individuals.
Variations run the gamut, from the basic pisco and citrus, the latter which accounts for the word “sour,” to sweeteners such as simple syrup and fruit juices, to the Aji Sour with a spicy green chili or the Sour Haas with avocado, pineapple and mint.
Today, the production of pisco begins when the grapevines are tied with wet cattails to hardwood logs to make them grow horizontally. Vineyard workers begin pruning the vines in early August. Once ripe, the grapes are taken to lagares, the wine press houses, to be crushed the same day to prevent acidification. The grape “must” then is put into slanted earthen containers, called pisqueras. The outdoor fermentation process lasts up to two weeks. The contents of the containers then are distilled to create the aguardiente, or finished alcoholic beverage.
Here are several variations on the Pisco Sour recipe:
TRADITIONAL PISCO SOUR
3 parts Pisco brandy
1½ parts lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons fine sugar
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with fresh ice. Shake until the ice is melted, then pour into a chilled highball glass and garnish with a lemon or lime slice.
1 egg white
1 tablespoon sugar
1 glass of Pisco brandy
Juice of 6 limes
(Makes 6 drinks)
Beat the egg white and sugar in a blender. Add Pisco, lime juice, ice and Angostura bitters. Mix well and pour into shot glasses.
4 cups ice cubes
1 cup Pisco brandy
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup white sugar
1 egg white
Put the ice cubes, Pisco, lemon juice, sugar, egg white, and bitters in the bowl of a blender. Blend on high speed until finely pureed. Pour into two glasses and garnish with an additional dash of bitters.
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