Pisco, a clear South American grape-based brandy with a golden hue, is something of a chimera. It has the nose of tequila without the burn, some of the flavor of a sweetened brandy with a lighter citrus finish, floral notes reminiscent of gin, and vodka's bracing sock in the jaw. Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s brought the Quebranta grape to South America, where it flourished in the valleys that straddled the borders of Peru and Chile, sparking a proprietary feud that time has not diminished. (To oversimplify: Chilean pisco is softer and more floral, Peruvian a bit rougher and higher in alcohol content.)
Sailors in the 1700s began ferrying the potent spirit from the port city of Pisco, Peru, to San Francisco, where it exploded in popularity during the Gold Rush. In the late 1800s, at the city's booming Bank Exchange bar, Duncan Nichols created the wildly popular pisco punch, a secret recipe that involved soaking pineapple in gum arabic. Around 1915, the creation of the foamy, bitters-topped pisco sour seemed like it would guarantee pisco a permanent place at the party, but Prohibition put an abrupt end to imported spirits and pisco faded from the U.S. cocktail scene.
As mojitos and caipirinhas blossomed in popularity in the past decade, the pisco sour slowly followed suit, and re-creations and reinventions of Nichols's original punch recipe (it's perfect for brunch) have popped up as well. Now, bars like San Francisco's Pisco Latin Lounge offer revelatory tasting flights, while New York's Pomaire has an extensive cocktail menu devoted solely to Chilean pisco. Mixing beautifully with both red and white wine, it also lends itself well to citrus combinations and is a highly versatile base for cocktails. The latest act of the 500-year-old spirit may just be its best.
The Perfect Mix: Pisco Cocktails
1. Pisco Sour
2 ounces Macchu Pisco
1 organic brown-egg white
3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
First shake the egg white, then add the rest. Shake again and strain
into a glass.
23 Ave. A, New York City
2. Sideways Sour
2 ounces Barsol Pisco
2 ounces white grape juice
1/2 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce Cointreau
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Build all ingredients in a white wine glass filled with ice. Stir. Top with an ' ounce of pinot noir; garnish with grape.
Pisco Latin Lounge
1817 Market St., San Francisco
3. Este Gabacho
2 ounces Barsol Pisco Acholado
A heavy 1/2 ounce of St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1/2 ounce Martini & Rossi
1 dash each of grapefruit and orange bitters '
Stir over cracked ice in a chilled mixing glass, strain into a coupe glass, garnish with a grapefruit twist.
37 W. 19th St., New York City