A century is a long time to hit it big, but for the pisco sour, it just hasn’t been long enough (in Australia). The cocktail was created somewhere between 1915 and 1922 by American immigrant Victor Vaughen Morris, who opened the Morris Bar in Lima, Peru.
It’s here where the pisco sour made its debut in the form of a riffed whiskey sour. The drink skyrocketed in popularity and went on to become the national drink of Peru and arguably Chile; both of which produce pisco.
But the pisco sour has yet to make waves in the Australian cocktail industry outside of Latin American venues, which are sitting on a seriously under-the-radar drink lauded by those in the know.
Hospitality talks to Black Pearl’s Felix Woods and Ekeko’s Cameron Alexander about the nuances of pisco, their go-to techniques for nailing the fluffy-headed sour and why the cocktail will likely lay low for a little while longer.
Pisco might look like gin or vodka, but it’s a far cry from both; it’s a type of brandy made from wine or fermented fruit juice. More specifically, eight aromatic or non-aromatic grape varietals.
Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Uvina and Mollar are non-aromatic, with Moscatel, Torontel, Italia and Albilla falling into the aromatic category. And that’s just in Peru. The rules are a little more relaxed in Chile, where pisco can be made from 14 varietals.
The differences between the pisco production processes in Peru and Chile also encompass distillation. Peruvian producers can only distill pisco one time in a copper pot still. It also has to be distilled to proof (38–48 per cent ABV) from wine and there are no additions — which means sugar and water are a big no.
In Chile, pisco can undergo multiple distillations and is commonly aged in wood. The country also regulates pisco on the amount of alcohol it has, which varies from 30 to 43 per cent.
Furthermore, there are tiers of pisco: Puro, Acholado and Mosto Verde. Acholado has a single origin, meaning it’s made from just one grape varietal that can be aromatic or non-aromatic. Mosto Verde is distilled from wine that is sweet and semi-fermented while Acholados is made from two or more varietals.
That being said, pisco has flown under the radar in the Australian bar scene. Bartender Cameron Alexander knew a little about pisco before he started working at Melbourne’s Ekeko, but discovered a whole new world in the months that followed. “I thought it was a spirit made from something that grows there [Peru],” says Alexander. “It’s quite rare you find pisco at a lot of places.”
Ekeko is a Peruvian restaurant that opened its doors earlier in the year, and one of its defining elements has to be the pisco-dominated drinks list. The bar favours the use of Quebranta and works with a local supplier to source more elusive bottles.
“Melbourne Pisco Company is amazing and we use their Mosto Verde Torontel,” says Alexander. “Pisco has a beautiful and unique flavour that should always be the most important thing in a cocktail. You don’t make a Southside with bad gin; don’t make a pisco sour with bad pisco.”
Over at the Black Pearl, Manager Felix Woods stocks the bar with a number of different piscos and also favours Quebranta. “I love a Peruvian Quebranta and BarSol does a great one,” he says. “Torontel piscos are a little harder to come by, but are pretty special and worth tracking down. Our house pisco is a blend of Barsol Quebranta from Peru and Waqar from Chile, which uses muscat grapes and brings a beautiful floral dimension to the drink.”
When asked to describe the flavour profile of the spirit, the bartender says it’s a hard one to explain to people who may not have tried pisco before. “Even though it’s technically an un-aged grape brandy, it’s not a very useful phrase outside of a WSET exam,” says Woods. “I’d be more inclined to liken it to gin in terms of its floral, citrusy profile; even if they’re a million miles apart on paper.”
A pisco sour is made from a handful of elements: pisco, sugar, citrus, egg white and bitters. “The citrus can be lemon, lime or both; the sugar should be good old 1:1 simple; the egg white should be fresh and free-range or a vegan substitute such as aqua faba or soap bark,” says Woods.
“The pisco can really be the first one you set your eyes on — I’m sure there’s plenty of subpar piscos out there, but given the lack of mass-market demand in Australia, it’s really only the good stuff that makes it out here, so it’s pretty much impossible to pick the wrong one.”
And that means it all comes down to the person making it — achieving balance is make or break. “It’s sweet and sour at the same time, but it can’t have too much lime otherwise it’s puckery,” says Alexander.
“Getting the right sugar syrup ratio is also key. We use a 2:3 formula so it’s silkier and it affects the mouthfeel. The limes need to be fresh and you need to make sure the juice doesn’t ferment at all.”
Once all the ingredients (sans bitters) are put in a shaker, a pisco sour requires a double shake: one chills the drink and the other generates the sour’s signature foamy head. Woods says the order of the shakes are interchangeable. “The dry shake [can happen] before the ice shake or after, but it’s got to be done,” says the bartender. “At Black Pearl … [we] dry shake, ice shake, double strain into a frozen coupe [and put] a few drops of Chuncho bitters on top.”
The Ekeko bar team also dry shake first and then test the formula to make sure nothing has been left out before ice shaking to chill down the drink. “It really needs to have that double shake to stretch out the protein in the egg whites,” says Alexander.
“People ask why our pisco sours have so much foam, and I say, ‘Easy; I take out all my aggression on the shaker’. It needs to be a violent and long shake, especially on the dry. It’s not a rapid back and forth like you shake a spray paint can; it needs to be a long movement so the proteins are stretching to get that fluffy head.”
A stellar sour can also come down to the most simple tasks from fresh ingredients and precision to speed of service. “It needs to be served immediately,” says Alexander. “After a time, there’s too much separation between the egg and the rest of the drink.”
Woods is on the same page, and suggests “adding the egg white last or putting it in the top tin on its own — egg and booze can get a bit spooky if you’re not careful”, he says.
The good thing about classic cocktails is the tweaking potential, and the pisco sour is no different. Bartenders can try everything from a dual-spirit base to trading out the citrus element. Ekeko’s pisco sour list features more than 10 options including passionfruit and Incan golden berries, but a mango chilli variation has proven to be one of the most-ordered drinks. The team had to alter the ratios from the original formula to make it work.
“We use 60ml of egg white rather than 30ml, which is standard for a lot of sours,” says Alexander. “It has a really nice silkiness and the rocoto chilli has an amazing flavour and spiciness.”
There’s also a chicha morada iteration; a Peruvian beverage made with purple corn that’s traditionally boiled in water with pineapple peel, quince, cinnamon and cloves before sugar is added. It’s widespread across the country and is commonly consumed as a soft drink.
Ekeko uses chicha morada syrup in place of the simple formula. “It’s been really popular,” says Alexander. “But the most recent syrup we had didn’t mix well with the egg; it clumped, so that was a bit disappointing.”
Woods’ twist is all about having a good time. “I have a drink on the Attic menu called the Disco Sour, which is either quietly brilliant or a by-the-numbers crowd pleaser,” says the bartender. “It’s a split base of Quebranta pisco and London dry gin with lemon, sugar, a splash of crème de pêche and fresh mint garnish. Because it’s on the menu and there’s no good way of saying ‘raw egg white’ and having it still sound delicious, I’ve opted for a vegan foamer and not mentioned it in the description.”
Tequila and mezcal have captured the attention of drinkers in a big way after the initial gin boom, with the next spirit du jour yet to be determined. As to whether it could be pisco, Woods doesn’t think so.
“And that’s in no way a reflection of the booze itself,” he says. “There are so many other factors at play when we look at the astronomical growth of tequila. You have to take into account Mexico’s geographical and cultural proximity to the US and the resulting cultural crossover as well as the success corporations have had in selling the rest of us an idealised — and largely reductive — notion of Mexican ‘culture’ based around neatly packaged touchstones such as sombreros, hammocks on the beach and Día de Muertos.
“Chile and Peru simply don’t hold that same level of instant recognition and fascination in the rest of the world, so I don’t see pisco quite reaching those heights, though no doubt it’s very much on the rise in its own way. More of something isn’t always better and you’re unlikely to get tricked into buying some nightmarish pisco-flavoured spirit drink or find yourself at an ethically questionable industry party wearing a branded poncho and sipping your sour out of an Incan god mug any time soon.”
Alexander is of the belief there’s just simply not enough consumer awareness. “People don’t know pisco,” he says. “We’re more than happy to put a few mls in a glass and let people taste it alone so they can understand it. But usually if someone has had a pisco sour before, they sell themselves.”
Making a customer a drink they have never tried before is something to savour as a bartender. “I’ve literally never serve [a pisco sour] to someone for the first time and had them not love it,” says Woods, “which you really can’t say for a lot of drinks.”
Lead image: NYT Cooking