Last week, I went out to 7 bars searching for the best Pisco Sour in San Francisco. Over 7 nights of drinking I learned that what was old is new again and that there are many ways to make a classic cocktail even better.
The places I chose were just a small sampling of the many bars that serve Pisco, but 7 nights of drinking was all I could handle for now. At each place, I sat at the bar and did my best to watch the mixologist prepare the cocktail. I also asked questions, took notes, and made sketches. Do you make your own syrup? How did you choose the Pisco? What type of bitters did you use? Was that lime juice and lemon juice?
A classic Pisco Sour has the following ingredients: Pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, and Angostura bitters. Pretty simple, right? Well, despite the similarities, there were many subtle differences in all the Pisco Sours I tasted. Some were too stiff, others could use a bit more sugar, while a few seemed to have a delicate balance and creaminess that made them smooth and flavorful.
Though I have been drinking Pisco Sours for many years, this was the first time I took the time to really appreciate its preparation. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover a mixologist culture that is extremely proud to make and serve this cocktail. After all, they are striving to serve you the best Pisco Sour in San Francisco.
Though there are many Pisco brands and 4 types of Pisco — Pure, Aromatic, Quebranta, and Acholado — I was surprised that only 2 brands were used at the bars I visited. La Mar, Pisco Lounge, Nopa, and Alembic used Barsol Pisco Quebranta, while Cantina, Range and Baretta used Campo de Encanto Pisco Acholado.
Some bars used fresh ingredients, squeezing the lemon and cracking the egg, others had their ingredients pre-mixed. Range, Alembic and Baretta used commercial gum syrup, others made their own. Nopa used Amargo Cuzco, or cinnamon infused bitters, others used traditional Angostura bitters. Some mixologists even used a straw to taste the cocktail before serving it. I really enjoyed watching the cocktail made from fresh ingredients and the vigor of the mixologists shaking the drink.
There are two way to make a Pisco Sour — using a shaker, or using a blender. Both La Mar and Pisco Lounge used blenders, but all other bars made the drink shaken which can result in a creamier foam. It occurred to me that this was probably how the drink was made in the 1920’s, before the era of electric blenders.
Pisco Sour is usually served in a wide tumbler, however, Baretta and Alembic used shallow goblet glasses, Range used a Martini glass, and Cantina used a tall glass with ice cubes and a straw. Some mixologists were extremely meticulous about the number of drops and placement of the Angostura bitters. They even used a stirring stick to make some Angostura art on the foam which really enhanced the presentation.
In a Pisco Sour you should be able to taste all the ingredients in a simple but perfect combination. I found that Pisco Sours that were shaken instead of blended had a creamier foam, and were more balanced, smooth, and flavorful. I also preferred the fresh ingredients over pre-mixed. As far as the choice of Pisco, I personally prefer Aromatic grapes such as Italia but really enjoyed both the Quebranta and Acholado.