Like tacky souvenir shot glasses or a monkey planter made from a coconut shell, the pisco sour, Peru's national cocktail, was once dismissed as something only tourists would want. Its story is a tale of rise and fall, near extinction and, most recently, resurrection and reverence.
The saga of the pisco sour starts with the planting of vineyards by European settlers in Peru in 1547. The grapes loved the hilly, dry climate around the Ica region and spawned drinkable wines. But the Europeans were still jonesing for the sweet brandies of their homeland. When the grumpy King of Spain decided to squash competition by banning the making of wine in Peru, the locals had no chance but to turn their white grapes into brandy, or pisco.
A pisco sour combines that white-grape brandy, simple syrup and fresh lime juice and crowns it with a frothy layer of shaken egg whites. Then it's spiked with a dash of bitters. If you've had a whisky sour, you're familiar with the pucker power of the citrus tamed by a good dose of sweetness. But a pisco sour elevates the sour to a new level by bumping out whisky in favour of the velvety texture of brandy, and turns it into satin with the creaminess of egg whites on top. A dribble of bitters stops it from being relegated to the category of sickly sweet cocktails popular among those newly legally allowed to drink (here's looking at you, Singapore Sling).
Around the 1950s, Peru's pisco sour was the tipple of choice for both natives and visitors. Ava Gardner famously danced on the bar at the Gran Hotel Bolivar in Lima after sipping a steady supply of them. (Her exuberance was understandable, given that the cocktail is about 46-per-cent alcohol.) But even after that spectacular endorsement, the drink eventually lost its allure, as locals looked to Europe as trendsetter for all things food and drink. Peruvians preferred going out for a meal at a fine French restaurant and opted to wash down their boeuf bourguignon with a French red like Côtes du Rhône. Only the tourists filled the bars that hung boastful "Best Pisco Sour in Town!" signs in their windows.
The pisco sour's return to a source of national pride was fuelled by a revived love for native Peruvian cuisine. Chef Gaston Acurio was the man behind the push. Like many Peruvian chefs, he trained in Europe, first at Sol de Madrid in Spain, then Cordon Bleu in Paris. "When I came back to my country, I used my background in international cuisine to add a new dimension to that of Peru's," Acurio shouted as we walked around Mistura, the country's national food show, in Lima last year. He was greeted like a rock star or beloved politician. Burly bodyguards formed a ring around us as we attempted to move through a crowd of almost 400 people, many of whom swarmed him. He's worshipped for almost single-handedly putting Peruvian cuisine on the world culinary map. "We have claimed the pisco sour as our own," he explained. "Chile and other countries have tried to say it's theirs, but we have embraced it with all of our hearts." That's clear in the number of new variations of pisco sours seen countrywide. Aside from 80 different types of pisco that are available, the country's mixologists have got creative. In the lobby bar of the Tambo del Linka Resort & Spa in the Sacred Valley, the variations run the gamut from a coca pisco sour (made from leaves of the illicit cocaine plant) to sweet versions with mango or passion fruit. To showcase the pisco sour and experiment with flavours has become a source of national pride.
Matching Peru's prowess, other locales are dusting off oldies that had fallen out of favour and putting them back on bar menus. The Spanish in Basque country are drinking Kalimotxo, a once-questionable combination of cola and red wine, with pride. And Italians aren't hiding their bottles of frizzante Lambrusco in the cupboard any more, as the pop-like red wine has become fashionable once more.
In Vancouver, award-winning bartender Jay Jones, who recently joined the team at Market by Jean-Georges in the Shangri-La Hotel, is hot on the rebirth of the Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans. It's a decidedly adult concoction with waves of flavour from the warmth of rye whisky and the anise bite of Herbchaud (the American version of pastis). Invented circa 1830 by a Creole apothecary, it gives credibility to the term mixologist over bartender. "Cocktails were originally mixed for medicinal purposes," Jones explains. "They were not meant to be consumed recreationally."
At the Rosewood Hotel Georgia (due to open May 7 in Vancouver), the tone for cocktails will be distinctly old-school with house-made bitters and oak-aged spirits, courtesy of Brad Stanton, bar and lounge manager at the Hawksworth Restaurant on-site. He will be showcasing his version of the Marquerite (gin, vermouth and orange bitters), featured in Thomas Stuart's cocktail bible from 1896, Stuart's Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them. The hotel's underground vaulted cocktail lounge, Prohibition, will pay homage to drinks from the pre-Prohibition era.
But not everyone is content to leave a classic untouched. Nick Leverty, head bartender at Victor in Toronto's Hotel Le Germain (pictured above), has tackled some new and old classics. He decided to toughen up the Cosmopolitan by swapping out vodka and replacing it with Wild Turkey bourbon - resulting in what he calls "Sex and the City meets Johnny Cash." He's also doctored up the traditional Manhattan by trading the typical whisky or bourbon with Clase Azul tequila. Leverty says he's not against the classics, but simply likes to play with flavours. Though when it comes to his current favourite, the Negroni - a Florentine invention dating to 1900 - he doesn't tinker. It's Campari, vermouth and gin. "Sometimes, you just shouldn't mess with perfection," he says.
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