The Pisco Sour is a bright, resplendent, and justifiably classic cocktail: Beautifully clear pisco is balanced with a sweet, pillowing egg white and fresh lime juice. Add three drops of bitters for health, wealth, and happiness, and this cocktail is a charmer from first to last sip.
Stunning and simple (and stunningly simple), the 5-ingredient Pisco Sour is a drink so worthy of veneration (and indulgence) — it’s the national drink of both Peru and Chile. Like its close sibling the Whiskey Sour, it comes down to adding citrus and sweetener to a base spirit.
Like most sours, both the taste and experience are vastly improved by shaking egg white with your ingredients, resulting in a frothy, velvety body that borders on decadent.
What's in a Pisco Sour?
A pisco sour has pisco, citrus, sweetener, and egg white— it’s as simple as a Sour can get. So, what is … “pisco”? The pisco liquor is a clear grape brandy that has been made in both Peru and Chile for more than 400 years, although made slightly differently in each country.
Pisco can vary in taste and even strength or proof depending on the grapes, how long they’ve been rested, whether they are blended, and where they were bottled. Peruvian Pisco will have a much higher proof than Chilean and there are also differences in taste depending on the brand. Piscos can vary in flavor from baked banana bread to herbal undertones.
Some recipes will pass on the egg white and some may use lemon rather than lime (or a combination of the two), but for all of the convention and strength of opinions on what is a proper Pisco Sour, it’s well worth experimenting until you’ve found your own one true way to prepare this classic.
Why the Egg White?
Pisco Sours are famed for that silky head of foam and it has the egg white to thank for that. Egg whites bring relatively little flavor but a great deal of texture to cocktails, in addition to tempering bitterness or even acidity.
Reluctance to using egg whites in cocktails typically comes down to a fear of salmonella, or a dislike of that occasional aroma of wet dog. And you know, both are reasonable turn-offs. Salmonella fears might be allayed by recent studies suggesting that the risk is even lower than that with raw salads. As for those wet dog notes, that’s why we have the addition of bitters and/or cinnamon atop the foam: it countermands any potential eggy scent with pleasing aromatics.
If you can’t have eggs, you might want to get your hands on Fee Foam, an egg-free foaming agent that is not only shelf-stable, but in some cases makes for a better pisco sour because your drink doesn’t separate if you’re slow to sip. Alternately, you can also use aquafaba for your cocktail, made from chickpea water and has similar foaming method to egg whites.
Dry Shake the Cocktail
It’s time for you to master the “dry shake,” which is how you’ll get a perfectly frothy egg white foam.
- Add the egg and the other ingredients to your shaker without ice, giving everything a good “dry” shake to let the protein in the egg begin to foam without water/ice diluting it. Some bartenders will throw in the coil from a Hawthorne strainer (or something similar) to effectively “whisk” the eggs during this first shake, though a milk frother would also work.
- Add ice and shake vigorously for another 10-15 seconds, which will firm up the foam and bring down that temperature.
Serving and Garnishes
Assuming you’ve mastered shaking the egg white, tradition calls for a garnish of bitters atop your foam. Some recipes may call for a dusting of cinnamon over the top or even a cinnamon-rim on the glass.
Angostura bitters are probably easiest to access, but the Peruvian Amargo Chuncho bitters have cinnamon, nutmeg, and floral vanilla notes, which complement this cocktail flawlessly. A stripe of bitters, or swirls made with a toothpick look great, but it’s hard to top the earnest simplicity of three individual drops, staining the thick foam like ink on a bed of snow, representing health, wealth, and happiness.
There is a sweet, tapered glass similar to an old-fashioned or rocks glass in which this cocktail might be served in Chile and Peru, but you’re more likely to see these served in a coupe or Nick & Nora glass in the United States. Stemmed glassware keeps the beautiful color and layers visible, while a heavy-bottomed old-fashioned glass – frozen before serving – may keep the drink itself at the most ideal temperature while you slowly sip.
History of a Pisco Sour
Until 2009, you’d have been led to believe that the Pisco Sour was a creation of one Elliott Stubb, an English steward who sailed into the Peruvian port of Iquique (now in Chile), opened a bar, and popularized this twist on a whiskey sour. A 2009 article ruled out Stubb as the creator and pointed toward an immigrant from Salt Lake City, Victor Morris, who came to inspire the legendary “Pisco Wars” between Peru and Chile.
More recently, the Peruvian writer Raúl Rivera Escobar discovered a 1903 pamphlet published in Lima by S.E. Ledesma. Ledesma’s “Cocktail” called for pisco, sugar, lime juice, and egg white, all shaken and frothed—presumably much like the drink you’re just a few shakes away from enjoying.
How to Choose Your Pisco
While Peru and Chile both argue over who deserves credit for pisco nobody disputes the differences between pisco in each country.
Peruvian pisco has to be distilled to 40 percent proof or higher and can be significantly stronger than most Chilean piscos. Meanwhile, Chilean pisco is typically matured in wood, with several different aging periods, from the 6-month Guardas, to the 12-month Envejecidos.
With its higher proof and more direct connection to the original Pisco Sour, look for a Peruvian pisco like Capurro, whether it’s Quebranta (a varietal) or Acholado (a blend).
What Makes This Our Favorite
Like a good Tom Collins, the difference between a good Pisco Sour (most of them) and a great one tends to come down to your balance of citrus and sweetener.
You already have a great base spirit and with that, you want just the right amount of fresh citrus to truly brighten the drink, but not so much as to pucker the mouth. Similarly, the sugar should balance the liquor with the citrus, rounding out the edges of bitterness and tartness. Too sweet, and you’ve lost the finer qualities of both the pisco and the fresh citrus.
From there, well-incorporated egg white will elevate this drink from a simple sweet-and-sour summer sipper to a velvety, well-frothed wonder. Just make sure to have at it while still frothy.
Pisco Sour Variations
- Swap out the Pisco for bourbon and you have a Whiskey Sour. Add a splash of red wine to this and you have a New York Sour.
- Swap out the Pisco for Rye Whiskey and add a dash of absinthe, and you have a semi-spicy Rattlesnake Cocktail.
- Swap out the Pisco for cognac and you have a Brunswick Sour.
- Pisco Brulee: Fill a small misto sprayer with 151-proof rum (or Stroh 80, a stronger-still rum with an aroma of butterscotch) and Angostura bitters, and spray toward a match held just a few inches from the top of your poured drink.
More Mouthwatering Cocktail Recipes
- Manhattan Cocktail
- Bee’s Knees Cocktail
- Blood Orange French 75 Cocktail
- Mojito Cocktail
- Whiskey Sour Cocktail
- 2 ounces Peruvian pisco
- 1/2 ounce lime juice
- 1/4 ounce lemon juice
- 3/4 ounce simple syrup
- 1 medium egg white
- 3 drops of Amargo Chuncho or Angostura Bitters
- Dusting of cinnamon, for garnish
Pour ingredients into cocktail shaker:
Pour the pisco, lime juice, lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white into a cocktail shaker. Dry shake (without ice) for at least 15 seconds to fully emulsify the egg white. Shaking with the coil from a Hawthorne strainer, if you have it, will help whisk and emulsify the egg white further.
Add ice and shake to chill:
Add ice to the shaker and vigorously shake for another 10 seconds before straining into a chilled coupe or old-fashioned glass.
Add a dash of bitters, garnish, and serve:
Using a dropper, dot the top of the drink with three drops of bitters. Garnish with a dusting of cinnamon. Serve.