THE LAST PISCO SOUR
THE LAST PISCO SOUR
In the departure lounge of the Santiago international airport (“Pudahuel” to us old-timers, and “Arturo Merino Benitez* officially), they recently put a wonderful bright sign up over the bar that declared to all travelers leaving Chile “The last pisco sour!” It made sense, because while visiting Chile, if you are at all interested in the finest Chilean products, you will probably have become acquainted with, and maybe somewhat addicted to, the pisco sour.
Or, if you have visited Chilean friends or family, you know that every now and then (mostly now), a tray of sours will be passed around, especially before meals of which there are plenty, and you will have had one or two a day, probably more. In February, when we travelled from Santiago to Sao Paulo, Brazil, Ximena and I took pictures of that bar and the sign. Surely we didn’t think it would be our last pisco sour, but the idea stuck that as one leaves Chile, the chances of getting a good pisco sour go way down, unless you are travelling to Peru.
The Chileans and their neighbors the Peruvians argue over who “pisco” belongs to. The French of course defend “Champagne” as theirs, and only theirs, so I guess the Peruvians and the Chileans think they should also. But pisco is different. Really, only Peru and Chile produce pisco. I believe a recent international trade determination was made that Peru must market its Pisco internationally as “Peruvian pisco”, and Chile “Chilean Pisco”, if they want to use the term “pisco”. OK. What’s wrong with that? (And “California Champagne” and French Champagne”? Maybe not.) Maybe if each wants to increase sales of their pisco in the global market, especially the United States, they could learn from the successful generic advertising of the “mojito”, the “Cuba Libre”, and the “Margarita” and promote the drink, not necessarily the main ingredient or the country. Wouldn’t it make sense for Peru and Chile to market the “pisco sour” globally, together, rather than argue over who pisco belongs to? If the pisco sour ever really caught on in the US, together Peru and Chile could not produce enough pisco to satisfy the market. Maybe the Peruvians and the Chileans argue about this, something relatively inconsequential, to distract them from more substantive neighborly dilemmas like the placement of military facilities and toys along their mutual border, marine and terrestrial delimitations that affect mineral and fishing rights, Bolivia’s claim to access to the Pacific, and immigration and drug traffic control between the two countries. Arguing about pisco is better, much less consequential. As the argument goes on, toasting each other with pisco sours keeps the conversation civil.
But there is a definite difference in the way Peruvians and Chileans treat their pisco. Peruvians generally make a super pisco sour. They for the most part use one part juice of the small “pica” lemon, three parts pisco (usually the milder 35% strength, rather than 40%, 45%, or 52% which are better for drinking straight), sweetened to taste with “goma”, a liquid sugar mixture much like the bar syrup once used in bars in the US. With a bit of fresh egg white and a little ice, this mixture, blended, makes a traditional pisco sour. Peruvians serve this in bigger portions than the Chileans do. On the other hand, Chileans, who used to do pisco sours much the same way the Peruvians still do (although they have often tended to use regular lemons, or sometimes the lime-like “sutil” lemon, in place of the “pica” lemon). As Chileans have modernized their economy over the past 30 years, and their life styles along with it, they have become more “economical” with their pisco sours. Several years ago a very good powdered pisco sour mix appeared, in packages that made 8 or 15 servings. Just add pisco. .This was OK, but it did not produce the quality sour of old. But it was fast. For years I have travelled back to the US from our visits to Chile with several of these packages of pisco sour mix in my suitcase. I am doing it less now, since the multiple packages of white powder have increasingly attracted the attention of border security checkers, who either think it is some forbidden substance, or are Chilean or Peruvian and just want some of it. If I packed 10, I would arrive with 8.
Then, as you would expect, pisco producers figured out that you could basically accomplish the same thing by premixing the powdered sour with pisco, and sell it already to go, in bottles. More and more this is what you get when you have a sour in a restaurant or someone’s home. There are still good restaurants in Chile where you can get a very good pisco sour made from fresh ingredients the traditional way. The best pisco sour we enjoy is the one Ximena’s sister, Maria Paz, prepares at her home. Hers are great. And so are the ones they serve on the patio of the elegant Hotal Antumalal on the shores of beautiful Villarrica lake in the shadow of imposingly active Volcan Villarrica.
The distinction between Peruvian pisco sours and Chilean pisco sours has become so accepted in Santiago, that many restaurants, especially the burgeoning group of very popular and successful Peruvian restaurants in Santiago, now offer two different pisco sours on the menu: Peruvian and Chilean. What’s the difference? First, the price. Peruvian pisco sour is more expensive. Then, the size. Peruvian pisco sour is probably larger. Third, the Peruvian pisco sour probably has more “head” on it than the Chilean, suggesting inclusion of the egg white. Maybe the Peruvian sour will be made with Peruvian pisco, but you can not be sure of that. If the difference were only that Peruvian pisco is used for the Peruvian sour, and Chilean pisco for the Chilean sour, the distinction would have meaning, but not the price differentiation nor the quality differences. I think that generally, Chileans who order a Chilean pisco sour when a Peruvian one is also offered, either do it out of sheer patriotism, or for the lower price. It seems like “modern” Chile has lost interest in making a good, traditional pisco sour. They are more interested in making it easy than good, and are even branching out to the fruitier mango sour. I remember a time when I liked apricot sours, made with apricot brandy (pisco is only a grape brandy, really), so maybe they are on to something. To my amazement, it is catching on, especially with young drinkers and women who drink very little.
When Ximena and I left Santiago on April 14, to return to the US after our annual three-month stay in Chile somewhat disappointed with the evolution of the Chilean pisco sour, but still addicted to it (the pisco sour, and it’s siblings red and white wine, became constant companions during the weeks immediately after the big earthquake) I went to look for the “Last Pisco Sour” airport bar, thinking that maybe I ought to have one while we waited for our flight. To my great disappointment, the “Last Pisco Sour” bar was a victim of the February 27th earthquake that destroyed much of south, central Chile, and much of the interior of the Airport building. I thought about my plight for a moment, but then decided, OK, no LAST pisco sour. Good. That means more are coming, and that makes me optimistic about the future. The pisco sour, Peruvian or Chilean, is a great companion.
*Chilean aviator who founded the Chilean Air force and LAN Chile.
Written in Mclean, VA on May 15, 2010