That pisco punch
Armed with a vague memory of a potent cocktail I once enjoyed at a small joint in San Jose, I visited La Huaca, a Peruvian restaurant nestled inside a nondescript strip mall in Roseville. There I met Jorge, a friendly bartender from Venezuela who gently laughed when I told him that I wanted to drink “all the pisco.” He informed me that if I had even a couple of shots, I’d need to be carried to my car. “Pisco is strong,” he said. “Stronger than tequila. You can’t drink it by itself.”
Pisco is a Peruvian brandy produced by distilling fermented grape juice and aging it for at least three months in a nonreactive container such as copper, glass or botijas (clay pitchers informally named piscos). Unadorned, pisco is enjoyed by the hardiest souls; the flavor is quixotically harsh, full of grapy sweetness and fragrant like a pre-salted tequila shot. But even most Peruvians prefer their pisco cut with another ingredient such as the utilitarian lime, which happens to be the basis for a classic Pisco Sour.
Jorge started to make me a Pisco Sour and bantered about the “crazy guys who pound down the pisco and make themselves sick.” He pours, mixes and shakes: pisco, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, ice. “You need the lime juice!” he tsked while dotting foamed egg whites with a smattering of bitters. Pleased, he offered me the glass.
On first sip, it’s even better than I remembered. Pisco Sour is electric. The lime juice amplifies both the sharp edges of hard alcohol and the lush, tart, almost-champagne sweetness of grapes. It jump starts every synopsis in my brain. The foamy egg whites add frothy texture, and the bitters zap nutmeg-esque aromatics up my nostrils. I had such an instant happy, energetic buzz that I wanted to shout, “Zowie!” or “Eureka!” or “I. Am. Alive!” and hurl my glass at a fireplace mantel. (FYI: Peruvians say, “Salud!” when they raise their glasses, not “Zowie!” or “Eureka!")
Jorge nodded in approval and began to make more Sours such as the Chicha Morada with purple corn syrup, the Fresa with strawberry puree and the Maracuya, a puree of delicate passion fruit. La Huaca also serves hybrid pisco cocktails such as the Chilcano, made with ginger ale, or a Peruvian household favorite, Pisco Punch, which is like the Morada, but with the delightful addition of pineapple juice. None of the varieties deviate far from the original. The syrup may change, but the sour stays high-voltage fun and frisky.
Even though pisco is brandy, and therefore closely related to cognac, it’s more similar to tequila in both tang and a brightness. Tequila cocktails, though, often seem crafted to mask the robust tequila flavor. A Tequila Sunrise mostly tastes of orange juice, for instance. Not so with Pisco Sours. Sours are a cocktail explicitly designed to draw out and enhance the pure, immaculate joyfulness that is the beating heart hidden within Peruvian pisco.
But, I warn you: It is strong. By the end of the evening, I wore a dopey, elated grin, while Jorge looked on with a knowing smile. “See? This is why I have a rule: Only drink piscos when you are off work the next day.”