Thursday Night Loaded: Sourness Over Pisco

Pisco is a peculiar spirit. Distilled from grapes, it’s technically a brandy but it’s colourless and tastes quite different from what you’d generally expect from something with that name. I’ve only tried two brands — in some parts of the world there’s a vast array of piscos to choose from — but I find it tastes a little cleaner and has a more wholesome fruitiness to it than, say, a Courvoisier or Remy Martin. Mind you, I confess my palate isn’t especially discerning and were you to blindfold me and wave a bottle of pisco under my nose (saucy girl) I’d probably just call it brandy.

Pisco is made in only two countries, Peru and Chile, making it something of an exotic liquor and as a result it hasn’t always been so easy to come by in Canada. Fortunately, it’s coming back into fashion and that means you can enjoy….

The Pisco Sour
2 oz pisco
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
egg white
Dry shake to emulsify the egg white. Add ice then shake vigorously to chill. Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass (or pisco glass if you have one). Sprinkle a few drops of Angostura Bitters onto the cocktail’s surface.

The recipe above I’ve taken from Robert Hess, author of The Essential Bartender’s Guide and one of the founders of the Chanticleer Society and the Museum of American Cocktails. He’s an advocate for lime in a Pisco Sour and this runs counter to what I’ve read in other bar guides.

According to Hess, the commonly accepted line that pisco should be mixed with lemon results from some confusion over nomenclature. Hess learned from a pisco-fancying friend from Peru that what we call “lemons” are called down there “limes”; and, what we call “limes” are called by Peruvians “lemons.” Further complicating matters, their yellow “limes” taste only slightly more tart than oranges and are eaten solo. Their green “lemons,” meanwhile, are the citrus fruit used in cooking and cocktail mixing to add sourness. So, says Hess, while American bartenders correctly transcribed the Pisco Sour recipe as including “lemon” juice, they did so not realizing they were setting up generations to reach for the wrong fruit.

Personally, colour me skeptical.

First off, I’m always mistrustful of the strange-but-true factoids that some guy heard from a guy. Especially the really cute ones. And second, if it’s true about the switched names, then there are still unresolved questions about the relative sourness between South and North American limes and lemons. That is, if the southern yellow “lime” is so mellow that it can be consumed like a mandarin, then it’s conceivable that the Peruvian green “lemon” is less sour than our limes and has a flavour more in line with our yellow lemons. In which case, name and colour be damned and trust that my Playboy barguide from the 1970s was correct all along.

In short, I’m sticking with lemon. Mainly, though, because after trying it both ways I find a Pisco Sour tastes better with the juice of our yellow fruit whatever you choose to call it.

As an aside, due purely to laziness, I’ve done nothing to confirm or disprove Hess’ confused-citrus story. This being a blog, I wonder if there are any pisco-fanciers with a South American connection reading this who can shed some light on the subject.

Meanwhile, any discussion of pisco would be incomplete without a mention of the controversy that surrounds it.

Seems pisco is at the centre of a bitter dispute between Peru and Chile, with each nation vying to claim their version of the spirit as the genuine article. Peru claims the liquor originated with them and apparently they have a pretty strong case on that score. Chile, on the other hand, while equally proud of their product, want to keep the name and join forces with their neighbours to market the liquor world wide.

Peru is having none of it and claim that what the Chileans make is another beverage entirely. They’ve even gone so far as to make the importation of Chilean pisco illegal.

The Wikipedia entry on the dispute is good reading. And I suspect a lot of the vehemence on the subject has to do with the political history in the region and pisco is just a proxy for other resentments.

Be that as it may, Hess claims that the best piscos are Peruvian and if he’s right that’s bad news for us. The SLGA only carries Pisco Capel Reservado, a Chilean brand. I happen to have a bottle of Pisco Aba in my liquor cabinet which I picked up on a trip to Edmonton. I find it quite tasty but it’s also from Chile.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in giving a Pisco Sour a go but don’t want to invest in a bottle of pisco to do so, The Fainting Goat has it on their drink menu.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.