I hope that the country wasn't so swept up in the excitement surrounding Thursday's World Nutella Day that we've forgotten about National Pisco Sour Day, which comes on the first Saturday of each February. It distinguishes itself among the galaxy of national tippling days in that it's officially recognized by the government and accompanied by food fairs, music and dancing in the street—in Peru anyway. The holiday has yet to get its due here. And in Chile, which has been feuding with Peru over the origins of this spritely Southern American brandy for centuries, they wait until May for their big Pisco Sour bash.
On the other side of the globe where it is summer, February probably seems like the perfect time to celebrate a cocktail so frosty, frothy and thirst quenching as the Pisco Sour. In the frozen North, however, drinkers mightn't be so apt to think of it that way. We should, though. It's a great variation on the Whiskey Sour, which can put us in mind of the tropical weather we're missing, while also utilizing a fruit that happens to be currently in season in South America.
Like its cousin, a Pisco Sour combines citrus with sugar, egg white and bitters for a drink that sports a bit of a merengue on top. In this case, of course, the spirit is the titular pisco. Developed in the days of the Spanish South American empire, it is a liquor distilled from the wine of local grapes. But in the regions where it is made it represents much more than that—it's a way of life, a bone of contention and a flash point between two neighboring countries. Sterling Field, the bar manager at Chicago's Celeste, and a pisco champion, says, "I don't think anyone wants to get into that argument." Happily, in North America we can choose sides based on personal taste rather than national allegiance.
The basic stylistic variances between countries reside in how it is distilled. Peru has long-established regulations that say pisco must be made in pot stills and bottled at the proof at which it comes off the still. Chilean rules are laxer, allowing column stills and the reduction of alcohol strength before bottling. Each country has dozens of examples. Only but a handful make it to the United States. Such brands as Portón, Barasol and Macchu Pisco represent Peru. Capel, Control C and Kappa are Chilean entrants.
The taste difference tends to be that the Chile makes cleaner, more restrained and citrusy pisco, whereas Peruvians are typically bold, malty and a bit oily. While the former are smoother, the latter offer a wider range of flavors, a quality that has developed a foodie culture around it, according to Gregory Dicon, author of The Pisco Book.
Drinking Pisco Sour is a great way to research which style you'll prefer. There is no scarcity of stories relating the drinks origin, but one popular theme is that a shortage of Bourbon inspired some alchemist to replace it with pisco in a traditional Whiskey Sour. It's less clear why lemons got switched out in favor of limes. A typical recipe follows:
2 ounces pisco (choose a national allegiance)
3/4 ounce lime or lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1 egg white
1 dash aromatic bitters
Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously to achieve a deep froth. Strain into a sour glass or small cocktail coupe. Garnish with nutmeg or a dash of bitters.
Within this, many choices still remain. Of course, you'll have to pick a pisco brand, but your limes are also key—which backs me into a pun because Key limes, rather than the Persian variety, are often specified. You can also substitute gomme syrup, agave nectar or superfine sugar in place of simple syrup.
You could forgo the egg whites in favor of soda to get your fizz, but that would be a shame. Not only does the egg white offer a great presentation, it sets a preview of the pisco as you'll first smell the earthy savoriness of say, a Portón, or the orange peel of a Kappa pisco as it is integrated in the merengue perched atop the drink.
Bitters are also integral to a Pisco Sour. The classic rooty, barky charms of aromatic bitters, such as Angostura or Fee's Barrel-Aged, perk right up in a Pisco Sour, offering a counterpoint to the tartness and sweetness.
But before I get too precious about the niceties of this drink, let's not forget that the main point of this celebration may be to shake those wintertime blues with a light, summer drink. Or maybe just to wash the taste of Nutella out of your mouth.