Take Your Pisco Sour to the Next Level
Club soda, the reverse dry shake, and the power of technique to elevate a familiar drink.
Happy Memorial Day, and welcome to a long weekend. Because it’s a holiday, this edition is free to all subscribers.
There are no real competitors, no other heirs to the Summer Cocktail throne. When the days grow longer, and the temperature heats up, Daiquiris and Margaritas are what’s on order.
But if there is ever a drink that could rival the Big Two of summer drinking, it’s the Pisco Sour.
The Pisco Sour is far from an unknown in the world of cocktails. Most craft bartenders have made at least a few, and most good cocktail towns have at least one bar that will make a good one. Guillermo L. Toro-Lira’s entry in The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails asserts that, as part of the cocktail renaissance in the 2000s, the drink “took its rightful place as one of the indispensable cocktails.” As it should be.
But my sense is that it remains underrated and underappreciated amongst home cocktail aficionados.
After all, the Pisco Sour, at its most basic, is not all that different from a Daiquiri. Sure, there’s an unusual — and perhaps unfamiliar — foreign grape spirit for the base, plus, in most iterations, some egg white for texture and a few dashes of bitters scattered across the top of the drink. But at first glance, it might seem like just another bright and boozy summer sour.
One might thus ask: If you can make a Daiquiri what, exactly, is the point of a Pisco Sour?
This is sort of like asking: If you can make a great hamburger and a delicious fried chicken sandwich, why would you ever bother with a shrimp po boy? Or a lobster roll? They’re just sandwiches with different base meats.
The answer should be self-evident. Because they are different. Because they are delicious. Because their pleasures are uniquely their own.
So it is with the Pisco Sour, a boisterous, lively, sweet-yet-tart cocktail that tastes of fruit and bitters. A Pisco Sour can be quite good when made semi-competently. It’s positively sublime when made with care.
Indeed, this is a drink that, even more than others, benefits from careful and exacting preparation. It’s a cocktail that shows the value of taking a bit of extra time and some extra steps, including a slightly complicated multi-shake process, to make the drink just right — and take it to the next level.
So for this week’s Memorial Day edition of the newsletter, we’re going to explore the Pisco Sour — the basics of the underlying spirit, the history of the drink, and the tricks to making a truly superior version.
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Butch Cassidy and the Pisco Kid
If you’re not familiar with pisco, the main thing to understand is that it’s a clear spirit produced in either Chile or Peru and distilled from grapes.
Pisco is funky and flavorful, with a youthful zest that you typically don’t find in long-aged spirits. Not surprisingly, you’ll pick up a wide variety of fruit notes — but mostly, it really, really tastes like grapes.
On the one hand, that’s kind of obvious. On the other hand, if you’re used to long aged spirits made from plants you probably don’t eat directly — grains, for example, or agave — it’s something of a sensory shock to taste a bit of pisco neat. Pisco’s pronounced grape-y-ness is a reminder that spirits are directly distilled from actual, specific stuff.1
Both Chile and Peru claim to be the spirit’s place of origin, and there is a long and complex rivalry between the two over its production. The countries regulate pisco differently, resulting in somewhat different production methods: In Peru, pisco must be single-distilled to proof, meaning no water can be added, and it cannot be aged in wood barrels. In Chile, pisco can be distilled multiple times, diluted down to proof, and aged in wooden barrels (though wood aging is rare).
The most telling regulatory detail, however, is that neither country allows pisco made in the other to be labeled pisco.
As David Wondrich writes in his entry on the spirit in the Oxford Companion, neither country produces an obviously superior product, and the pisco-based rivalry between the two is fundamentally political.
For the home bartender, the question is more practical: Which brand of pisco should you use in cocktails?
The answer to that question is going to depend somewhat on availability, which means you’ll probably end up with Peruvian pisco, simply because it’s more common.
Macchu, BarSol, and Caravedo all make good expressions at reasonable price points — typically around $30, though some bottlings can run past the $50 mark. For my part, I’m most likely to reach for Macchu, which is a little milder and a little less funky than some other expressions.
The Grapes of Wrath
Once you have a bottle of pisco on your bar cart, you can set out to make your Pisco Sour. As you do, it’s helpful to understand some history.
According to Toro-Lira’s Pisco Sour entry in the Oxford Companion, the first recipe for the cocktail appeared in a Lima cookbook in 1924, and it wasn’t even graced with its own unique entry.
Instead, the book printed the recipe for a “Whisky Sour” — whiskey, sugar, and lemon juice — and then noted, almost incidentally, that a Pisco Sour was made the same way, but with Pisco. It was a fairly unassuming drink, made by switching out the base ingredient of a more familiar cocktail.
Since then, however, the Pisco Sour has evolved. Today’s versions are almost always made with two significant additions and one alteration.
In the vast majority of high-competence preparations, it’s made with egg white, giving it a fluffy texture, and a dotting of bitters on top of the mixture, giving it a bit of color and a hint of spice-rack flavoring. In most cases now, it’s also made with lime juice rather than lemon, though you can find some lemon or lemon-lime versions.
If you are interested in the history of cocktails and their evolution over time, it’s worth making and trying a no-egg, no-bitters, lemon-forward version of the drink, just to get a sense of how it started.
But today’s version — with egg white, bitters, and (usually) lime — is far superior.
Exactly how the drink came to have its signature egg white and bitters-top is a matter of some dispute. Some say it was created by an American bartender, Victory Vaughen Morris, at his Lima bar sometime after it opened in 1916. Others, including Toro-Lira, suggest that crucial modifications, including the addition of egg white and bitters, might have come from one of Morris’ disciples years later.
Whatever the case, the drink now tends to consist of five core ingredients:
Sugar syrup, typically either simple (1:1) or rich (2:1)
Lime (or occasionally lemon) juice
If you’re familiar with other egg white sours like the Clover Club, you should be able to whip up a pretty decent version without even looking at a recipe. Most any common sour ratio will give you a decent version of the drink.
The only part you might not figure out just by looking at a list of ingredients is that the bitters are dotted on top of the drink rather than incorporated into the mix as in the Fitzgerald.
If you’ve never made a cocktail with egg white before, the main thing to remember is that egg-white cocktails require a technique known as a “dry shake.”
A dry shake is actually two separate shakes.
For the first shake, you combine all the ingredients — including the egg white — in the shaker without ice. You then shake everything vary hard for about 10 seconds. This is strictly to incorporate the egg white, giving you a more integrated drink, and a fluffier overall texture. You’re basically beating the egg white into the drink.
For the shake, you pop your shaker open, and add ice, then shake it for 10-12 more seconds. This second shake performs the usual function of shaking, which is to chill and dilute the drink.
Eggy cocktails that rely on dry shakes do take a little longer to make. But the egg white/dry shake combo gives any drink a truly delightful frothy texture. It’s relatively easy to execute, but it’s also the kind of moderately advanced technique you can use to delight and impress your friends.
An ordinary dry shake makes a very decent Pisco Sour. But to make a superior version of the cocktail, however, we’re going to use a related but slightly different technique.
Club Soda — and a Reverse Dry Shake
For several years, that was basically the way I made a Pisco Sour — as a conventional eggy sour with an ordinary dry shake.
But recently I came across a slightly different technique that radically improves the cocktail without changing it so much that it’s a different drink.
This technique was developed by Deke Dunne of the bar Allegory here in Washington, D.C., and it involves two crucial changes: First, a reverse dry shake — in which the drink is shaken with ice first, then shaken a second time without ice — and second, a small portion of club soda added during the second (no ice) shake.
This gives the cocktail a slight effervescence, almost transforming it into a class of cocktail known as the fizz.
I’ve yet to write about fizzes for this newsletter, but the most famous drink in the category, the one you are most likely to be familiar with already, is probably the Ramos Gin Fizz, which adds dairy and club soda to a gin sour in order to create a huge head of foam at the top of the drink. Fizz-class cocktails read as moderately carbonated — not quite as aggressively carbonated as, say, a can of ginger ale, but fizzy all the same.
Dunne’s technique gives the Pisco Sour an even lighter, less aggressive fizziness, but one that nevertheless lifts the drink into the stratosphere, turning it into something almost like a light and breezy Pisco Sour Soda — but without quite venturing fully into soda-topped highball territory.
The reverse dry shake technique is somewhat fussier and more involved than a typical dry shake, since it requires multiple vessels. It probably sounds a little bit complicated, but it’s really just a shake with ice, then a shake without ice (and with soda).
More precisely, you’re…
doing a shake with all ice and all the ingredients except for the bitters and club soda
then straining out the drink into a second vessel
removing the ice from your shaker
then putting the mix back in the shaker and adding club soda
then performing a second shake of all the ingredients (except bitters) without ice
then straining the mix into a cocktail glass for serving and — finally — dotting the mix with bitters.
Dunne also uses a combination of syrup types, plus both lemon and lime juice. I prefer a straightforward rich (2:1) simple syrup here, and lime juice only, which I think provides a more distinctive contrast with the pisco.
But his reverse dry shake + club soda technique really elevates the drink. Yes, it takes a bit more time to execute. But it’s by far the best method I’ve found for elevating this already-delightful cocktail, and it really demonstrates the value of taking extra care and extra steps when making a drink.
A couple of additional production notes:
You’ll need to separate an egg, tossing the yolk and keeping the white. You’ll then need to measure out a ½ ounce portion of the egg white. Egg white can be a bit tricky to measure, as it likes to gloop together. But if you very lightly scramble the white (after separation) with a fork — just stir the separated white rapidly 4-5 times — you’ll find it becomes easier to pour and measure precisely.
Any decent pisco will work here, so don’t feel beholden to a specific brand or bottle. But as I noted previously, my go-to is Macchu.
Traditionally the bitters are dotted on top of the cocktail at the very end of the process, almost as a garnish or decoration, though they also flavor the drink. Anywhere from 3-7 drops is a reasonable amount; I typically use 5. If you want to pretty it up, you can use a cocktail garnish skewer to swirl the bitters into patterns.
Most bartenders use Angostura Aromatic bitters, but some employ Amargo Chuncho bitters from Peru, which have a slightly earthier flavor profile relative to Angostura’s winter spice mix. You can order them from Amazon.
All that leaves you with this lightly fizzy, egg-fluffed version of the Pisco Sour. It might not be a Daiquiri or a Margarita, but there’s always time for those heavyweights — and this Pisco Sour more than holds its own in the summer cocktail ring.
Pisco Sour (Lightly Fizzy)
½ ounce egg white
¾ ounce rich (2:1) simple syrup*
1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
2 ounces Pisco, such as Macchu
½ ounce club soda
4-5 drops of Angostura Aromatic bitters, or Amargo Chuncho bitters from Peru, dotted on top of the drink
Combine all ingredients EXCEPT THE SODA WATER AND BITTERS in a cocktail shaker.
Add ice, then shake vigorously until chilled.
Strain the mix into a second vessel, then dump the ice from your shaker.
Put the mix back into your shaker, then add club soda.
Shake briefly and vigorously a second time, without ice.
Strain the mix into a cocktail glass. You should have a thick, foamy, eggy head. Dot the foamy top of the drink with several dashes of bitters.
*Rich (2:1) simple syrup: In a blender, combine two parts sugar and one part water by weight (so for example, 400 grams sugar, 200 grams water) then blend on high for 2-3 minutes until fully integrated. Bottle and store in the refrigerator. Keeps for at least a month.
The Large Dogs of Summer
I once took a distillery tour and was shown a small still used for experiments. The tour guide told me that the most recent experiment had been distilled corn flakes. Sadly, I was not able to taste the product. I’ve always wondered how that turned out.