Little drink, big deal: A history of the Pisco Sour

Just hours after arriving in Cusco, we received our first solicitation.

No, no, it wasn’t for drugs … it wasn’t even for sex. Instead, it was for something a bit more benign, but equally ubiquitous …  

“Pisco sour, Pisco sour! Eat here — I’ll give you free Pisco Sour!”

Intrigued, but unconvinced, we walked on to the next restaurant … “Eat here, not there — I’ll give you two free Pisco Sours!

The next place, a mere sign: “All-you-can drink Pisco Sour, 5:00-7:00 pm!”

We glanced at our watch: it was 5:15. Sold. 

Even if you know very little about Peru, you’re likely to have heard of its affinity for the Pisco Sour.

Pisco, a grape brandy hailing from the vineyards of the southern Peruvian desert, is actually the country’s national drink, though it’s more famously known in its rougher form, the Pisco Sour.

It’s history traces back to the early-1900s presence of Europeans in Peru , home-sick for their traditional whisky sour. They used the already popular Peruvian brandy, Pisco,  kicked it up a notch by adding lime juice, sugar, ice, and egg whites to make it frothy, and proclaimed it Pisco Sour.

Pisco is so closely tied to Peruvian culture and heritage, that on the first Saturday of February, they celebrate the national Pisco Sour Day. You can imagine it’s quite the party.

But this popular little drink isn’t all about celebration; in fact, it’s actually caused quite a controversy.

Peru and Chile, its neighbor to the south, have a long-running dispute over the origin and ownership of the drink. Chile produces a similar drink, also called the Pisco Sour, developed from their own Pisco brandy, and they claim they were the first to develop it. In fact, Chile has traditionally exported more Pisco than Peru, although Peru has finally surpassed them in recent years. The dispute probably isn’t aided by the fact that quite a bit of tension between the two nations remains from the 19th Century War of the Pacific, pitting Chile against Peru and Bolivia.

In 2007, the drink was attributed as part of the Peruvian national heritage … but even this has not settled the rift between the two countries.

Don’t think the dispute really runs that deep?

Try reading the fine print on your Customs card as you enter the country. Along the lines that forbid you from smuggling in chemical weapons, drugs, and other criminal acts, it also forbids you to bring anything  ”foreign” going by the name of Pisco into the country. Talk about a serious offense. (Worth noting: As Justin observed, this restriction does not appear to be limited to just beverages … so if you plan on traveling to Peru with your young son, Pisco, you might just want to leave him at home). 

So the next time you’re in Peru and you find yourself craving raw eggs with a hint of lime, make sure you take advantage of all the opportunities for free Pisco Sours. And although you’ll no doubt soon be slightly buzzed, please try to remember, you’re drinking a very important — and serious — part of Peruvian history.