Saturday, October 22, 2011

XXQC - Pisco Sour

Many are likely to have at least heard of pisco, and a number of these may also be familiar with the spirit's origins as a brandy produced in South America.  If only it's proclaimed affiliations were as uncontroversial.  Not to insinuate that there is a formidable venture in understanding the basics of pisco, but rather the divisive claims bestowed upon the production of this brandy, as well as the famed cocktail which has helped to widen the spirit's adoption here in the northern hemisphere.  As the hotly debated 'national spirit' of two neighboring countries on the western coast of South America, the battle between Peru and Chile to lay claim to the spirit continues to this day.  Regardless of the appeals for truth from both sides and all its associated rhetoric, a nice bottle of pisco is the best way to be introduced to the Pisco Sour, yet another of the XXQC.

As pisco has gained in popularity over recent years, the debates surrounding its origins has garnered more attention as well.  One might be surprised to learn of such bickering over the ties and methods for the proper distillation and production of this grape brandy, but both countries take their arguments very seriously.  That being said, since the uncertainty won't find resolution with the faint insight of an American cocktail enthusiast, I'll spend my time more wisely with some brief highlights of what primarily distinguishes these rival versions of pisco.

Two things not up for debate are the characterization of pisco as a brandy and its introduction to South America by Spanish settlers in the 1550s.  It is most often produced by the fermentation and distillation of wines made from varieties of Muscat grapes, tho others (Quebranta, Pedro Jimenez, Torontel, etc) may find their way into the mix as well.  One of the early process distinctions between Peruvian and Chilean pisco is in the distillation, with the prior using pot stills, and the latter typically favoring the continuous/column still route.  Following distillation, Peruvian pisco is aged in glass, clay, or stainless steel vessels for roughly three months prior to direct bottling, resulting in an unadulterated clear brandy which is true to the character of the grapes themselves.  The Chileans, on the other hand, age their distillate in wood barrels (most commonly oak) for at least three months before filtering, diluting with purified water, and bottling.  The result of these additional steps typically yields a faint yellow/golden color product with a flavor profile that is influenced by factors other than the principal wine(s).  A number of other attributes, including specific varietal designations (single variety, blended, etc), the age of the wine before distillation, and others, all serve to further distinguish the two piscos.  Thankfully for us we can leave all the controversy to them, search out the best bottle (most commonly of Peruvian origin here in the States), and mix up a cocktail.

Unfortunately, the conflicting dialogue doesn't end with spirit, but spills over to the 'national origin' of the Pisco Sour as well.  The cocktail's history, first introduced sometime in the 1920s, has all the expected ambiguity that one might imagine.  Yet in an effort to solidify its perceived stance as the founder and leader of all things pisco, Peru proclaimed and celebrated its first annual 'National Pisco Sour Day' in early February 2003.

Similar to related cocktails such as the Whiskey Sour, the Pisco Sour is composed of spirit, sweet, and citrus.  While the cited ratios of these components can range from 1.5:1:1 to 3:1:1, I typically split the difference and go with a 2:1:1 (pisco, simple syrup, lime).  Some recipes call for the use of lemon rather than lime, which stems from the opinion that lemons better reflect the flavor of the 'limon' citrus variety found in South America.  I've always used lime, and since Gary Regan calls for the same in The Joy Of Mixology, at least I know I'm in good company.  The remaining ingredients here consist simply of egg white and a finish with Angostura bitters.  A quick mention on using egg whites in cocktails.  Although underlying conditions and one's overall health should always be considered, the inclusion of raw egg white into cocktails should be of little concern for most.  The ample one-two punch of citric acid and booze present in most drinks which call for egg white helps to mitigate the potential for problems tied to salmonella.  That being said, a little common sense must also be used, as three week old eggs are probably a dicey call no matter the circumstance.  Equally as much, if in such a compromised state that the concern of salmonella represents a potential risk, one might ask whether throwing back a high proof cocktail is a good idea to begin with...tho that probably wouldn't stop me.  And with that out of the way, a classic Pisco Sour.

Pisco Sour
2 oz pisco
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
1/2 egg white
Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients but bitters to cocktail shaker and dry shake vigorously without ice.  When nice and frothy, add ice, shake again to chill, and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.  Top with 3-5 drops of Angostura  

When shaking up cocktails which call for egg whites (or other emulsifiers for that matter), an important step in preparation is the 'dry shake'.  This is simply a method used create the most frothy mixture prior to the addition of ice, which interferes with the emulsification process.  A normal shake with ice after the dry shake will ensure that your cocktail possess the intended light and airy texture.

It's not easy to mess with a cocktail like the Pisco Sour, but I've tried a number of offshoots with pretty impressive results.  One of my favorites, an adaptation of the Pisco Bell-Ringer, comes from Paul Clarke and was his contribution to a MxMo 'Niche Spirits' theme earlier this year.  Another interesting twist, which I still have yet to try, brings mezcal into the mix, and converts the sour into a fizz with the addition of soda water.

Pisco Bell-Ringer
(adapted from Wondrich’s Esquire Drinks)
2 oz pisco 
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Rinse of apricot liqueur

Combine everything except apricot liqueur in a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well until chilled, about 10 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass that’s been rinsed with apricot liqueur. Garnish with lemon wheel.

When I began to conjure up ideas for an adaptation of the Pisco Sour, I wanted to add elements which would distinguish it from the original, yet still retain the essential character of the the base spirit.  The lone bottle of pisco on my shelf is Campo de Encanto, a great 'acholado' style of Peruvian pisco.  Acholado refers to one of the varietal designations of Peruvian pisco, and in this case, one which contains a blend of different grapes, as opposed to a 'puro' which is based on a single grape variety.  After looking over my other inventory on hand, I reached back for a bottle that hadn't seen action in a cocktail for quite some time...limoncello.  This particular specimen was the last from a batch I mixed up a year prior, and has the customary fresh, vibrant, lemon flavor with just enough sweetness to avoid being overbearing.  I thought this might be worth a shot as a nice variation of simple syrup with a citrus edge, and figured a bit of higher proof, mid-aged cognac in the right proportion certainly wouldn't hurt.  I went in a slightly different direction with the bitters as well, substituting a creole version (similar to Peychaud's) which tends to pair nicely with cognac.  All else remained the same, and this was the result...

The Mediation
2 oz Campo de Encanto pisco
1 oz lime juice
3/4 oz limoncello
1/2 Louis Royer, Force 53 V.S.O.P. cognac
1/2-1 egg white
Bitter Truth Creole bitters

Add all ingredients but bitters to cocktail shaker and dry shake vigorously without ice.  When nice and frothy, add ice, shake again to chill, and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.  Top with 3-5 drops of bitters.   

The Mediation

Although slight alterations here lend a bit of distinction from the typical Pisco Sour, I think it still embodies the essence of what makes the original so well loved, the celebration of a quality crafted pisco...national spirit of...

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