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Four Classic Pisco Cocktails

History and recipes for pisco's iconic drinks.

Pisco, the South American brandy appearing behind more bars and in untraditional drinks, can be mixed and muddled in countless ways.  But, only four traditional Peruvian pisco cocktails exist: Pisco Punch, Pisco Sour, El Capitán and The Chilcano.

The most fascinating part of pisco's cocktail history, and the development of those four pillars, is its link to the United States. Pisco's current surge in popularity is not the first time the spirit has enjoyed a run of stateside success. In fact, the brandy used to be prominent in the U.S. in the mid to late 19th century, particularly in San Francisco and along the west coast.

"Pisco is a classic ingredient in American cocktail history going back to the 1850s Gold Rush in San Francisco," explains Melanie Asher, founder of Macchu Pisco. As the Gold Rush took hold, exploding the city's population, the city's cocktail culture took off with it. Seemingly, the Forty-Niners, who came in a wave nearly 100,000 strong in 1849, were a thirsty bunch after a hard day spent prospecting for gold.

Bartender-owner Duncan Nicol of Bank Exchange in San Francisco is responsible for the Pisco Punch. The bar opened in 1853 and although its exact year of invention may be lost, by the 1870s its Pisco Punch was noted as being perhaps the most popular drink in the city, with a lofty 25 cent price tag.

"People say there also may have been cocaine in the cocktail..."

Sadly, the exact recipe remains lost in time, too. "The bartender took the recipe to the grave with him," says Asher. While there remains a shroud of mystery then, what is known is that the pisco came from Peru, the pineapple came from Hawaii, and more likely than not, Nicol's recipe included a very special ingredient. "People say there also may have been cocaine in the cocktail, which was legal then," she says. Perhaps that is why it was noted not only for its popularity, but its strength.

Just as pisco came to the U.S., drinks like the Manhattan, along with an overall interest in cocktails, made their way down to Peru via American workers. One such American was Victor Morris, who traveled to Peru in 1904.

By 1915, now with a Peruvian wife and three children, Morris opened the Morris Bar in Lima. It's there that he twisted a different piece of Americana cocktail culture, the Whiskey Sour, turning it into the Pisco Sour, replete with its signature egg white foam and drops of bitters.

El Capitán has no such traceable lineage, although it's easy enough to put together. The drink is essentially a pisco Manhattan, with equal parts pisco and vermouth. So, the Manhattan must already have had a Peruvian presence, in addition to the availability of red vermouth. The drink could have been created by an American, or perhaps an Italian immigrant looking to put his vermouth to use.

Italian roots are perhaps also found with the fourth pillar of Peruvian cocktails, the Chilcano. In Italy, the "Buon Giorno" cocktail consisted of grappa, ginger ale and lime. The Chilcano switches out the grappa for pisco. Another theory suggests it was simply an American looking to satiate his whiskey ginger craving. In either case, the Chilcano took on popularity a bit later, emerging prominently in the 1930s to 1940s.

Four classic pisco cocktail Recipes:

TKTK

All cocktail photos by Nick Solares

The Pisco Sour
Recipe from Raymi, New York

2 ounces pisco
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce egg white
Angostura bitters

Add pisco, lime juice, simple syrup and egg white to cocktail shaker. Dry shake to emulsify egg white. Add six ice cubes and vigorously shake for 15 seconds. Double strain and garnish cocktail with dashes of Angostura bitters.

Pisco Punch
Recipe from Raymi, New York

2 ounces pisco
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce pineapple simple syrup
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1 dash orange bitters

Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker with ice. Shake for 15 seconds. Double strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange twist.

El Capitán
Recipe from Raymi, New York

2 ounces pisco
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Add all ingredient to mixing glass with ice. Stir for 20 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

The Chilcano
Recipe from Raymi, New York

2 ounces pisco
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce fresh ginger juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
ginger ale
Angostura bitters

Add pisco, lime juice, ginger juice and simple syrup to cocktail shaker. Add 2 ice cubes and shake. Double strain into Collins glass and top with ginger ale. Garnish with a dash of Angostura bitters and a lime wheel.

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Some historical facts & dates obtained from "Pisco Punch and Pisco Sour: Two Famous Cocktails" by Jose Antonio Schiaffino, which was published as an appendix in the Pisco Porton book. Schiaffino is an author, professor and owner of the Lima restaurant Malabar.

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