Like good bartenders, all worthwhile drinks have a story. The pisco sour’s past is less history than it is mythology. Like the spirit, the cocktail hails from South America. Peru and Chile stake insistent claims. Born in 1873 to a Mormon family, Victor Vaughen Morris, aka “Vic”, worked for a floral company. At the turn of the 20th century, he moved to Peru and became a cashier for a railway company. Here’s where things take a bar-ward twist: When he retired to Lima, Vic opened the Bar Morris. He found success with his pisco sour, a whiskey sour variation that became Peru’s national drink. So while Chile and Peru say “the drink is mine,” the cocktail was born in the mind of an expatriate Salt Lake City from an esteemed Salt Lake City Mormon household.
At least, that’s the most common story. Victor Vaughen Morris is said to have invented the pisco sour some time around 1920. A Peruvian book, Nueva Manual de Cocina a la Criolla, was published in 1903. In its pages, there’s a drink made with pisco, sugar, an egg white, and a little lime juice.
Maybe the pisco sour was created in 1920 by a US-born expat. Maybe it was created by a Peruvian cookbook author in 1903. Maybe it’s simply a whiskey sour variation, a play on the drink published in Jerry Thomas’ renowned Bartender’s Guide. Maybe it’s a national emblem—but whose? There are enough talking points to get you through several rounds.
Before you start mixing, it’s best to know what pisco is. Although Chileans might contest this, pisco is Peru’s national spirit. It’s an unaged brandy, which means it’s made from grapes. It can be made from any of eight varietals—four non-aromatic: Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Uvina, and Mollar; and four aromatic: Moscatel, Torontel, Albilla, and Italia. Puro is made from only one varietal. Acholado contains a blend. Mosto Verde is distilled, as the name indicates, from partially fermented grape must— freshly pressed juice with seeds, skins, and stems. Pisco spends a minimum of three months in copper, glass, or beeswax-lined clay pitchers called botijas, piscos, or pisquillos. The distillate never touches wood. The character of the spirit and its subtle flavors are uncloaked. Chilean piscos are made with Italia and Moscatel; their piscos are fruity and floral.
Pisco distillers can produce a remarkable range of flavors, from the earthy to the musty to the floral, on and on. If you don’t fall in love with one pisco, have a conversation with your favorite bartender and get to know a few other brands.
These days, a pisco sour has four basic components: pisco, sugar (usually some form of simple syrup), lime juice (although some people prefer lemon), and egg white, with Angostura bitters dotting the foam.
Vegans don’t have to choose between missing quality cocktails and compromising their virtues. Aquafaba, the liquid from canned or home-cooked chickpeas, can stand in for albumen in baked goods and—to the chilled point—cocktails. During the cooking process, proteins and starches move from the seeds to the water, turning it into a liquid that binds, emulsifies and, happily for pisco sours, foams. It isn’t only a surface pleasure; aquafaba gives cocktails a smooth, creamy mouthfeel, improving every sip. Don’t worry about beany scents or flavors; those will dissipate when you shake the drink.
When a recipe comes from Dale DeGroff, you know you’re in for an exceptional drink. This pisco sour gets an extra-creamy mouthfeel from rich simple syrup. Make that by mixing two parts sugar to one part water—by weight, instead of volume, for accuracy. Heat while stirring until the syrup is smooth, or leave overnight, stir, and shake until the sugar has melted. Get our Pisco Sour Cocktail recipe.
Adapted from a recipe by Eduardo Huaman Tito of the Hotel Mossone in Huacachina, Peru, this heady pisco sour is high on foam. No shakers are required. For this tall frothy drink, let your blender do the work. Get the recipe.
Being vegan doesn’t mean having to say you’re sorry—and it certainly doesn’t mean missing out on a fabulously frothy pisco sour. This pisco sour gets its meringue from aquafaba, the water that comes from canned chickpeas. You’re saving on waste and getting an excellent cocktail as a reward. Let’s all drink to that! Get the recipe.
This pisco sour variation is extra-cool, courtesy of apple cider and homemade lavender simple syrup. To make this truly exceptional, buy cider from the farmers’ market, and put that fresh-from-the-press flavor to spirited use. Get the recipe.
For a fruity pisco sour with a bit of a bite, make a mango pisco sour. At its heart is a homemade mango syrup with a hit of fresh ginger. This is why smartphones were invented: to convert metric into imperial, so you can make the world’s best drinks your own. Get the recipe.
If slushies were your best friends for every childhood summer, then frozen pisco sours will be your grownup hot-weather pals. Purists will point out that you can’t taste as many nuances when what you’re sipping is frozen, but when the outdoor temp is 110 in the shade, you might not care. Just don’t cut corners on quality. Even when you’re freezing your cocktail, fresh juice and good spirits will make everything better. Get the recipe.
This vegan pisco sour variation gets dryness, baking spice, and banana-sweet notes from Hefeweizen beer, a South German wheat variety. Orange blossom water brings floral flavors. The two boost pisco’s complexity, while delivering a light pisco sour. This isn’t for classic cocktail purists, but it’s a satisfying drink for more adaptable souls. Get the recipe.
Head image courtesy of Professor Cocktail.