The bartender took out a chilled glass, separated the egg whites into a tin and then measured and added the lime, pisco and simple syrup and shook the cocktail into a froth. As he poured, the white drink toppled into the glass, the lime and pisco separating to the bottom. “Pisco hasn’t been very popular in New York City,” he said. “But now people are learning more about it.” He finished the drink with a dash of Angostura bitters and placed it before me.
As I took a sip, the creamy topper and acidic lime hit my tongue, and I remembered my first taste of pisco. My friends and I were halfway through our trek to Machu Picchu. Dirty and about to collapse, we paused in the town of Santa Teresa at a bring-your-own-toilet-paper-and-soap kind of hostel. In retrospect, camping would have been a cleaner, more comfortable option, but our residence had one resounding advantage: two-dollar pisco sours.
I’d missed pisco after I returned to the States, but years later, there I was, sitting at the East Village’s Yerba Buena, sipping my New York pisco sour, one of a list of pisco-inspired cocktails, which includes inventive combinations like mate-infused pisco (yes, please!).
A lot of lore surrounds the creation of this Latin American bar staple. Spanish viceroyalty originally brought pisco grapes to both Chile and Peru for winemaking, and in accordance with all good South American culinary disputes (Colombian versus Venezuelan arepas; Uruguayan versus Argentine alfajores), both countries declare propriety of pisco’s beginnings. The brandy serves as a point of national pride and fierce defense in both cultures (though Peru currently outdoes Chile in the quantity of pisco it exports).
Today, pisco can be made from eight different grape varietals and must be grown in one of the 42 designated valleys of Peru and Chile. The grapes are first fermented into wine then distilled into aguardiente, a generic term for distilled spirits that translates roughly to “fire water.” That liquor is briefly aged in cement, steel or wood and then bottled. In Peru, it’s distilled to somewhere between 60 and 100 proof, and though bottlings in Chile finish in that same ABV range, the spirit there is sometimes mixed with distilled water.
Pisco’s mild, fruity, vanilla flavor makes it ideal for cocktail combinations. In pre-Prohibition times, San Franciscans went crazy for pisco punch, an 1850s creation of the Bank Exchange & Billiard Saloon that combined pisco, pineapple gum syrup, lime juice and distilled water. Other pisco classics include algarrobina — essentially pisco eggnog — the chilcano made with pisco and ginger ale, and the thick Chilean Christmas cocktail, cola de mono, or monkey’s tail.
But none are as famous as the pisco sour, the spirit’s namesake cocktail, which was invented by an American in Lima in the 1920s using pisco, egg whites, lime juice, simple syrup, ice and a sprinkle of cinnamon to finish the frothy concoction. There are many variations — some use Angostura bitters; many skip the cinnamon — all smooth, tangy and refreshing.
On that hot Peruvian October night, I sat with my fellow travelers outside the hostel, our red and blue plastic chairs arranged in a circle, as the hosts mixed and shook our drinks at the bar behind us. My first sip of pisco awoke my sleepy senses, the subtle nose-tingling heat of the cinnamon giving way to the sweet and sour notes of the cocktail, and then I had quite a buzz.
And now I know I can replicate the sensation at Yerba Buena.
For other unique spins on pisco classics, check out:
La Mar Cebicheria (11 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010; 212-612-3388; www.lamarcebicheria.com)
Panca (92 Seventh Avenue South, New York, NY 10014; 212-488-3900; www.pancany.com)
Raymi (43 West 24th Street; 212-929-1200; www.richardsandoval.com/raymi)
Amaru Pisco Bar (84-13 Northern Boulevard, Jackson Heights, NY; 718-205-5577; www.amarubar.com/pisco)
And to purchase pisco, go to:
Red, White & Bubbly (211 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215; 718-636-9463; www.mybrooklynwine.com)
Astor Wines & Spirits (399 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003; 212-674-7500; astorwines.com)
Chelsea Wine Vault (Chelsea Market, 75 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10011; 212-462-4244; chelseawinevault.com)