The Pisco Sour is one of the best global emissaries for pisco, a grape-based spirit popular in Peru and Chile. It’s a drink that any bartender worth their salt knows how to make, and even most casual drinkers can easily identify by the iconic drops of bitters that float atop the cocktail.
Pisco is a South American liquor distilled from fermented grapes, making it a style of brandy. Its roots are in Peru and Chile, though the specific origins are heavily disputed and both countries claim it as their national drink.
Like the origins of the liquor itself, the creation of the Pisco Sour is murky. Common tales have it first appearing at Morris’ Bar in Lima in the 1920s, created by its eponymous owner, an ex-Mormon American bartender named Victor Morris. He featured the drink heavily in advertisements marketing his bar to local miners, and it’s thought he made the switch to pisco for a classic sour formulation due to difficulty in procuring whiskey at the time.
However, other versions of the recipe seem to predate Morris’s advertising push. Peruvian writer Raúl Rivera Escobar unearthed one example in a 1903 pamphlet titled Nuevo Manual de Cocina a la Criolla (New Manual of Creole Cooking), which specified what would come to be a Pisco Sour’s ingredients, albeit without a name. While these are simply some of the earliest known documented examples of the recipe, the more likely truth is that this combination of ingredients—pisco, lime juice, egg white and sugar—predates all printed materials, and simply follows the “sour” template of cocktail creation prevalent across several types of spirits at the time.
What’s in a Pisco Sour?
The category of sour drinks primarily means a spirit accompanied by sugar and a sour ingredient (usually lemon or lime juice). Egg white is found in many older recipes and has become a requirement in the modern Pisco Sour. A signature of this drink are the drops of bitters (usually three) on top of the foam created by the egg white, which creates visual flair while also adding a unique aromatic dimension when the glass is raised to the nose.
While a smaller category in comparison to other spirits, pisco has surged globally in recent years, and shouldn’t be hard to find at your local retailer. 1615 Puro Quebranta Pisco is a great introductory bottle—puro meaning a varietal offering made from Peruvian Quebranta grapes—that creates an easy-drinking brandy that mixes well and sells for around $22. Macchu Pisco is another easy-to-find option that mixes well into most cocktails, offers nice hints of pepper and citrus, and comes in around $25.
BarSol is also a smooth, grape-forward puro option from the Ica valley that offers grassy notes to help balance the spirit’s citrus and fruit, and retails for $33. For a blended option, one of the brands that helped raise the profile of the spirit in the past decade is Caravedo Mosto Verde Pisco, which uses three grape varieties (Quebranta, Torontel, and Albilla) to create a rounder, creamier pisco that will create a more full-bodied cocktail.
While bar-standard angostura bitters is the most common option, try to find a bottle of Amargo Chuncho Bitters for the best Pisco Sour. Made in Lima, they’re flavored using Peruvian leaves, herbs, roots and bark before being barrel-aged in oak for six months before bottling.
Pisco Sour Recipe
Combine all ingredients except bitters in cocktail shaker. Dry shake (vigorously and without ice) for 30–45 seconds to emulsify egg white. Add ice and shake an additional 10–15 seconds to chill. Strain into chilled coupe or rocks glass without ice. Top with three drops bitters.