By Ron Fisher
How many times have you visited a country, tried their locally produced spirit and brought a bottle home, only to discover that “it tasted better there than it does here.” Not so with Pisco, the national quaff of Peru. Pisco is in the brandy family, with a flavor somewhat akin to grappa. By itself, Pisco is (to my palate) a bit harsh, and it’s not something I would want to drink straight. But, there are some cocktails made with it that are so distinctive they can’t be concocted with another spirit, and we’ve got two that are especially good.
The story of Pisco begins with the Spanish Conquistadores in their colonies in South America. By 1560, the Spanish found that they could grow grapes and produce wine in what is now Peru. In the late 16th century the folks in Peru began distilling their wine as a means of preserving it, and ultimately decided that they liked the distilled version, which they called Pisco, more than the original wine. Demand for the liquor grew from far and wide as the steamships and sailors that called at the Peruvian port, which was also called Pisco, took the spirit with them and developed an overseas market. By the 1760s, the production of Pisco far outweighed the production of wine in Peru, with the former accounting for 90% of grape beverages made. Pisco became a very fashionable drink in Gold Rush San Francisco during the mid-1800s, a popularity that lasted until Prohibition.
Peru is not alone making Pisco – Chile does, too — and both consider it to be their national treasure. Conflicts do arise, even though the two are very different. Peruvian Pisco starts with a ‘young wine’ — in effect, grape juice — is distilled only once and ‘to proof’ (no watering down to achieve a specified alcohol level), has no additives, and is not aged. You can see why it might taste a little rough. Chilean Pisco is made from wine and like a French brandy is aged in oak casks, so it has a mellower flavor than the Peruvian. Just so you know the nature of the rivalry, Pisco that is made in Peru is not allowed to be called Pisco in Chile, and Chilean Pisco is not sold at all in Peru. I am not taking sides in this argument, but since the cocktails that we want to make require the Peruvian brand, make sure that is what you buy. A decent-quality bottle can be had for around $20.
Since we are going to invest in a bottle of Pisco, we should really get some bang for our buck, and here are two delicious cocktails that capture its flavor.
By the 1870s, a magnificently appointed bar in San Francisco called the Bank Exchange and Billiard Saloon gained notoriety for its Pisco Punch. It isn’t certain who created the drink, but the Punch recipe was handed down from one owner to the next in absolute secrecy. The last of the proprietors, Duncan Nichol, was probably the best at keeping the secret, as he died in 1926, taking the formula with him. The basics were pretty easy to figure out – Pisco, pineapple, and lime juice – but there was another ingredient, and historical evidence suggests it was cocaine. The drug was widely available in those days, and was a common ingredient in tonics (and Coca-Cola). No wonder the cocktail was so appealing. Our recipe is completely legit, and the proportions make it easy for a single drink or a pitcher.
<The Pisco Punch>
2 oz. Pisco
2 oz. pineapple juice
2 oz. lime juice
Simple syrup to taste, in ¼ oz. increments
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. Taste, and add simple syrup for desired sweetness. Pour into a wine or coupe glass with fresh ice. Simple syrup, you will recall, is sugar completely dissolved in water — 1/4 cup of each zapped in the microwave and stirred will take care of your needs. Always add the syrup last.
The Pisco Sour is the cocktail that most people associate with a trip to Peru, and it is available everywhere. Because the drink contains egg white, making it is a bit complicated, if you order it at a bar make sure that they know what they’re doing. Egg white in a cocktail doesn’t impart any flavor, but it makes the concoction very smooth, and also very attractive. For the Pisco Sour, what would be a traditional tart cocktail becomes almost silky.
2 oz. Pisco
1 oz. lime juice
2 tbsps. egg white
Simple syrup to taste, probably ¼-½ oz.
2 jots Angostura bitters
In a bowl, lightly beat an egg white until it is no longer clear. Put Pisco, egg white and lime juice into a shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Add simple for desired sweetness. Pour into a rocks glass straight up, and drop two shots of bitters directly into the center of the drink.