Pisco Sour: Chile (and Peru’s) Iconic Drink

by Liz Caskey on July 17, 2009

Pisco_SourSince No Reservations aired on Monday night, where Tony sips potent pisco sours in Bar La Playa in Valparaíso, I have seen a plethora of debates ensue about the origin of pisco and whether or not the pisco sour is rightfully Chilean. Today’s post is going to debunk this debate once and for all, and I will share with you my recipe for the Chilean version so you can shake up some of these delectable cocktails.

No Reservations aside, there is no doubt that there has been an intense debate as to the origin of Pisco and of the Pisco Sour for decades. Part of it may be a national pride issue (Chile and Peru tend to rival each other in many ways, not just gastronomically). Part of it may also be a jumbling of facts and blurred territory zones since this all happened a long, long time ago. So let’s set about getting this story straight:

History

Originally, during the colonial period, when the Spanish settlers first arrived in Peru, they had brought the vines from Europe. The first vineyards were planted in the coastal valleys of the then Viceroyalty of Peru. The grapes not used in the production of wine (sub-standard quality) were used to distill a brandy-like liquor, using the technique used to make Orujo in Spain. Pisco was born. Most of the early pisco in Peru was made from the grape variety known as Quebranta, which is still true today, although in actuality, they could have used any grape.

Fast forward a century to the mid 1600s…the Spanish crown began to impose a prohibition on imports of wine and pisco from the colonies. Thus, with a surplus, pisco began circulating among the colonies. However, it only really spread as commerce increased into the 1700s and 1800s and the sailors moving these goods began to indulge. The brew took the name “Pisco” after the port in Peru where many believe it originated (so okay, Peru technically wins the origin of Pisco).

The popularity of pisco back in those days is the same as today: low price and availability everywhere, which goes for both countries.

Appellations

Apart from the origin of Pisco, today, the pisco in Chile and Peru are radically different. Everything from valleys to grape varieties and process vary.

Peru:

Peruvians take their pisco seriously. In fact, they have a gamut of regulations surrounding the appellation and process that make it on par with DOC in Europe. Pisco is broken down into four varieties: Pure (made from a single grape like Quebranta); Aromatic (made from a Muscat like Torontel, Albilla or Italia, also a single varietal); Acholado (blend of several grape varieties); and the less common Mosto Verde (distilled from partially fermented must).

Peruvian pisco grows its grapes and makes the pisco in the areas surrounding Lima, Ica, Arequipa, and Tacna. They directly ferment the grapes and then distill this must. It is aged in glass or stainless steel to avoid altering its color. Generally speaking, it is clear in color, very smoothe (almost like vodka), and I find is very elegant. Acholado is more aromatic and used in pisco sours and Mosto Verde is the most perfumed of all, sipped and savored.

Interestingly enough, the importing of pisco from Chile is apparently illegal in Peru; but not vice versa. Hmm…scared of competition?

Chile:

Chile’s pisco grapes are grown in the northern desert region near La Serena in the Elqui valley and other inland, arid, sun-kissed spots and made in situ. In comparison to Peru, pisco in Chile is actually a distillate obtained from wine. The grapes used belong to the Muscat family using a dozen varieties of Muscat, Pedro Jiménez, and Torontel. The wine obtained is then distilled and the crude liquor is aged in old wine barrels for a few months. In some cases, the liquor is diluted with water to achieve the desired proof.

Chilean pisco, for me at least, is a much more rustic, earthy-tasting alcohol. It is usually combined in cocktails to take off its edge. However, there is a movement today among Pisco companies to produce finer piscos to compete with the whisky market to drink on the rocks. These piscos are very smoothe, aromatic, and refined and not used to make pisco sour (well you could, but that would be a pricy drink!). The pisco in Chile, since it is made primarily of Muscat varieties, has an unmistakable flowery, spicy aroma.

Chile vs. Peru

So if pisco is a sore subject for these two countries (let’s not even talk about maritime limits…), what is the difference in pisco sours?

There are a couple theories but the most palatable is that it was born in Lima at some of the grand hotels in the 1920s where bar tenders, whipping up the popular whisky sours for international guests, decided to substitute in pisco. It became a hit.

In Chile, another theory is that the drink arrived in Iquique in the late 1800s by way of a creative Englishman trying to find a way to make Pisco more palatable with lemons and a lot of sugar. The sour term, referring to the lemons, stuck, and the drink spread throughout the country.

Whichever version, they both taste pretty damn good.

The Peruvian version uses key limes, egg whites, sugar, and bitters, combined with pisco acholado to make a sweet tart frothy drink.

In Chile, since lemons are the predominant citrus in this Mediterranean climate, pisco sours have lemon juice, sugar or simple syrup, and optional bitters. The intense shaking (or blending) of the drink gives it the frothy cap without egg whites, although some people do add them.

If you blind tasted each drink beside each other, they would be as different as a margarita and a lemon drop. The liquors are different; the citrus is different; the ratios are different.  You know, that is why I don’t get all the fuss and rivalry. It is silly, people. They are two different cocktails, each iconic, both national drinks, that deserve to stand on their own. From here on out, please, let’s pay both of them some homage.

Chilean Pisco Sour: Recipe

Okay, so now that we have all that historical business out of the way, down to mixing up these drinkies. I am going to share my Chilean recipe since I tend to make more of these at home (I drink the Peruvian version when we head out to places like La Mar). Any visit to Chile will surely start and end with rounds of Pisco Sours. It is the beloved national cocktail after all. Specific interpretations (and lethalness) of the drink depend on the bartender. I have played around with ratios, blending lemons and limes, to get to my own recipe. I think it is a fair showing of a good, lemony, refreshing, and not overly sweet, alcoholic bomb. Give it a go. These are perfect for a terrace on a sunny afternoon with friends, an apertif, cocktail hour. And remember, they do have booze. Somehow they taste so good, like margaritas, you forget—but your head will remind you by the end of the second one if you don’t!

1 cup (250 milliliters) Pisco (Capel is the largest brand in Chile and abroad)

1/2 cup (125 milliliters) powdered sugar, or more according to desired level of sweetness

½ cup (125 milliliters) fresh lemon juice

1 cup ice cubes

Drops of Angostura Bitters

In a blender, combine the Pisco, powdered sugar, lemon juice, and ice. Blend for 30-45 seconds until mixture has become like a frappe. Pour into champagne flutes and top with a few drops of bitters.

Serves 4.

{ 22 comments }

Micheal Shea July 17, 2009 at 4:01 pm

The Pisco Sour is also invented in Peru….. by an American expat Victor Morris at his own bar, The Morris Bar in Lima Peru around 1920. This is hardly a debate. Most Chileans you talk to will admit its a Peruvian trait. Think about it, Limes probably don’t even grow in Chile, its a long strip of desert. However, Chileans do in fact also enjoy pisco sours and love it as equally as Peruvian probably do:-)

tpomas July 18, 2009 at 3:09 am

so wrong the guy before me… CHILE IS NOT A LONG STRIP OF DESERT… it only has desert in the northern part, that limits with the sotuhern parts of peru… i think the so called “MIchael shea” is probably living in Peru, or is a inflitred peruvian…

For the author.. here in chile the all “pisco trouble” is not a big deal, or not a national pride deal… there are two theories about it, one peruvian with all their souls, and one of the pisco producer in chile… not of the chilean people.. here everyone don’t give a damn about pisco, i rather drink rum, or something better..is commercial problem for me… and if it makes the peruvian people happy.. i’m willin to renunce to the pisco ownery… so my fellow chileans… maybe except for the obvious chauvinist people… every country has them.

i even think i know that the two kinds of pisco are very different.. so, one can call “pisco”, and the other “Chilean pisco”, or whatever, but the point is… don’t drag the chilean people into this pathetic fight about a brandy…i’ve said

Liz Caskey July 18, 2009 at 11:05 am

Hey guys,

The point of the post is not to increase the debate, rather just put facts on the table since they seem to be confused constantly. The pisco sour today as a cocktail is both rightfully both Chilean and Peruvian, each with their own unique expression. It is a silly argument, sort of like debating over the origin of wine and whether or not any Cabernet outside France can truly be Cabernet.

I guess the point I was trying to make was for everyone to understand the differences and ultimately appreciate that the pisco sour in Chile is a very different, unique notion of its Northern neighbor. There seemed to be a buzz of “pisco sour is not Chilean”, and well, there is a version of it here!

And yes, rum has overtaken pisco from a per capita consumption standpoint in Chile now.

Thanks for your thoughts. Cheers!

tpomas July 18, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Sorry if i seem a little angry, i’m not angry about you… in fact.. re-reading your post i understand the sense, and it’s a commendable one.. but is just that this “pisco” trouble bored me long time ago… specially because peruvians seems to have an obsession with it.. and is used to offend chileans,which i feel part of after all

Cocktails at 80 July 19, 2009 at 5:17 am

Thanks for the information about the types of Pisco, and the discussion of the differences in taste among the different types. I have only been studying cocktails for a few years, and I’ve learned that most of the stories about the origins of drinks are ….. just stories. Often they are so much fun to find, learn and repeat. But are they true?

Thanks for a good post.

Dakota July 21, 2009 at 5:03 pm

Terremoto

Ingredients:
White Wine called Vino Pipeño (pip-AIN-yo)
Large Glass Pitcher
Pineapple Ice-cream

Directions:
Add white wine to pitcher,
Add about 4-5 scoops of the Ice-Cream
Mix together, serve, and enjoy!

Dakota July 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm

TERREMOTO DRINK RECIPE
(“THE EARTHQUAKE”)

Ingredients:
White Wine called Vino Pipeño (pip-AIN-yo)
Large Glass Pitcher
Pineapple Ice-cream

Directions:
Add white wine to pitcher,
Add about 4-5 scoops of the Ice-Cream
Mix together, serve, and enjoy!

tina August 13, 2009 at 9:53 pm

My husband went to Chili last year & loved the pisco sour
I’ve been trying to find the proper reciepe for it??
since he didn’t get to stay in Chili for only 2 days because I
became deathly ill wonderding if I could get a recipe for certain?

Tina

omegaet August 24, 2009 at 8:50 pm

….having shared a couple of freshly “homemade” Pisco Sours (we had purchased the lemons during a walking tour of the city) with Liz in Santiago, as well as numerous other “variations” of the drink during the following two weeks in other parts of Chile….and further, having consumed a comparable number of the same libation during a couple of weeks in various destination in Peru….this argument seems all but rhetorical and worthy of continuation only over a Pisco Sour in either country! ¡Salud!

jhon September 2, 2009 at 11:49 pm

if u try both piscos, seriously you can taste the big difference. The Peruvian pisco sour is 100 times better than the chilean pisco and im going to tell you why, the chilean pisco it taste more like the european Rakia or the colombian agua ardiente…..in the other hand the peruvian pisco has a unique fine flavor. Thus the peruvian pisco is made with 80% more grapes than the chilean pisco thats a fact and thats why you can find a better flavor in the peruvian pisco sour.

Liz Caskey September 3, 2009 at 12:09 am

Totally agree. Peruvian pisco is very refined and in fact, appellations are akin to those for wine. In Chile, I would compare it more to a rustic grappa. Only recently are they “trying” to produce finer piscos. But everything from terroir to the way they make it and drink it is different.

Peruvian pisco is so refined, I even love it in other cocktails. At La Mar in Santiago, a cevicheria by Gastón Acurio, they do cosmo and other concoctions. On the level of sublime premium vodka.

Cheers!

Yves Tomasevich September 23, 2009 at 5:20 pm

heyyy i want to say that i love pisco sour ,and probably its a debated about the origen , i know that Peru has a national pisco sour day and they also has a province with that name so i suppose that many people are agree with me about that the pisco is from Peru like tequila from Mexico i have been in Peru and iam complete love the pisco , probably chilean people can made it but chilean has to accepted about the origen also they mixed the pisco with coke , howw its like you mixed tequila with coke i dont think so and they call piscoke ……..

anlong October 2, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Pisco is Peruvian
Pisco Sour was first created in Peru
No argument, and not a question of pride. Just a fact.
Glad that the Chilians agree too

Henry November 14, 2009 at 4:49 pm

No point of comparison. Chilean pisco is just cheap liquor mixed with water. I ve just tried peruvian pisco and that is another story, so rich in flavor smell and alcohol

Erika December 28, 2009 at 6:04 pm

You have made an excellent point. They are two different drinks that’s why they should be named differently. For our DOC we Peruvians have a town named Pisco where they started making Pisco (Champagne from Champagne got it?), the Chileans have a town named Elqui that they RECENTLY changed to Pisco-Elqui to register the DOC. Their brandy is so inferior that they have to steal the name (an prestige) to made it work (barely). I do not understand why don’t they call their brandy Elqui or something and make it 100% Chilean. It is like to force French people to drink “espumante” from Italy and forced to call it Champagne

Erika

Robbie January 23, 2010 at 2:07 am

Will someone just mix me a peruvian Pisco Sour and be quick about it…. :-)

Felipe Jorquera P. January 5, 2011 at 1:06 am

Very nice article, I love your blog!! Well, I was born and raised in Chile (chilean roots all the way up) and I must say that I don’t really care if pisco is peruvian or chilean, but peruvian pisco is certainly much better. I will choose it over chilean pisco every time.

Greetings! 😛

Liz Caskey January 6, 2011 at 2:59 pm

I agree. I like Peruvian Pisco better as it’s more refined as an alcohol and combines nicely with key lime juice…so I don’t get the debate. They are both different AND can co-exist. It’s not about absolutes. Nice to hear that you as a Chilean get that. People here seem to take it personally, although I see a lot of Peruvian-style pisco sours these day in trendy restaurant bar menus. Thanks for reading. Saludos.

Pablo Nolk March 11, 2011 at 2:32 am

Hola, soy chileno y me encanta el pisco sour que tenemos en Chile y la piscola tambien. Pero debo reconocer que el pisco peruano es mas rico. Como sea, no hay para que pelear.
salud!

Liz Caskey March 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Exactamente. Son diferentes y el origen del pisco obviamente es de Peru. El enfoque del articulo fue mostrar las diferencias en el Pisco entre culturas y no pelear cual era primero y/o mejor. Son distinto, obviamente. Que viva la diversidad!

Edgar B June 2, 2011 at 7:10 pm

I enjoy both Piscos in their differences, as I do with whisky (or whiskey) Canadian rye, Scotch or Bourbon.

Apples vs. Oranges?

It is a matter of taste not of fight.

Cheers

Nec July 16, 2011 at 1:47 am

Just like u said last apples vs oranges, name your drink etique or whatever u like to name it chills.

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