Before we dive into the birth of the pisco sour, it’s helpful to have a little background on the cocktail’s base spirit, pisco. Pisco is a type of brandy first produced in Peru and Chile by Spanish winemakers in the 16th century. Realizing that importing orujo, a kind of pomace brandy, was becoming too much of a hassle, they went for the DIY approach, and began distilling wine to get a high-proof spirit.
The DIY approach (visual approximation).
The story of the pisco sour begins in the early 20th century. The popular telling puts the cocktail’s origins in Lima, Peru, in the early 1920s where American bartender Victor Morris first had the idea to give pisco the classic sour treatment at his eponymous bar. The cocktail was a hit with guests, leading Morris to go big with promoting his invention via advertisements in local newspapers and magazines.
But despite all that aggressive marketing, the pisco sour may not have been a Morris original. The Peruvian food and drink blog Pisco Trail cites evidence of the cocktail’s existence in 1903 — 17 years before Morris first served up his sour. An excerpt (translated from Spanish) from a cookbook Nuevo Manual de Cocina a la Criolla features a recipe that is strikingly similar to a pisco sour:
“An egg white, a glass of Pisco, a teaspoon of fine sugar, and a few drops of lime as desired, this will open your appetite.
“Up to three glasses can be made with one egg white and a heaping teaspoon of fine sugar, adding the rest of the ingredients as needed for each glass. All this is beaten in a cocktail shaker until you’ve made a small punch.”
To be fair, it may just be a coincidence. After all, the sour preparation had been in existence for some time. Barman Jerry Thomas had included a whiskey sour recipe in his 1887 edition of A Bartenders Guide so the idea was definitely floating around. Still, it certainly complicates Morris’ claim.
Dubious origins aside, the pisco sour has come to be an iconic South American cocktail. Indeed, both Peru and Chile claim it as their national drink. It was allegedly a favorite of such American bon vivants as Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, who are said to have enjoyed a few rounds on visits to Lima. There’s even an apocryphal story about John Wayne carrying an intoxicated Ava Gardner out of a Lima bar after one too many pisco sours.
Pisco Sour recipe
2 oz. pisco
1 oz. key lime (or lemon) juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
1 egg white
Directions: Combine ingredients (except for the bitters) and dry shake for 15 seconds. Add ice and shake again for 20 seconds. Double strain into a highball or coupe glass. Add several dashes of bitters to the top of the cocktail.
Enjoy while listening to this.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.