June 20 2012 12:58 AM

South American cocktail struggles to find a home in San Diego

The Prado's pisco sour
Photo by Ryan Bradford

To put it in comic-book terms, the pisco sour has a mysterious and murky origin story. (Hey, nerds like to drink, too—just be glad I didn't fill this article with egg-puns. You'll see.)

Pisco-historian Guillermo L. Toro-Lira traces the roots of the cocktail back to Victor Morris, a Salt Lake City native who concocted the drink while bartending in Peru. But in the articles published on his website, Toro-Lira concedes that Morris' pisco sour was probably "a crude mix of Pisco with lime juice and sugar." Peru may retain etymological ownership, but Chile, Argentina and Bolivia also claim the modern, frothy delight as theirs (the froth due to the addition of egg whites). The dispute has even earned itself a wiki section and, frankly, makes me skeptical of the drink's Salt Lake City ties. As a Utahn myself, it's hard to believe that anybody in that state has ever laid eyes on such an ethnic liquor.

I decided to get some first-hand insight about the drink's controversial status and got in touch with American writer Roy Kesey, who spent 11 years living in Peru and, in fact, married a Peruvian diplomat.

"My only experience with pisco sours is drinking several thousand of them," said Kesey via email. "But I can tell you this: The only scandalous thing about them is that when you drink a well-made one, it feels like you're drinking the world's best lemonade, but then you fall down after the third one.

"As for controversial, not so much, because unless a country has a city called Pisco in it, they can shut the fuck up about pisco."

Well. Case closed. And in my experience, it's best not to argue with writers when it comes to booze.

Still, this doesn't do any good when it comes to us San Diegans. Our Peruvian restaurant choices are sparse, and those we do have don't even offer pisco sours: Q'ero in Encinitas and Café Secret in Del Mar only serve beer and wine.

On one hand, the lack of a South American influence in our local imbiberies is dismaying. On the other hand, it levels the playing field for all nations to state their case in ownership of the pisco sour.

Pampas Bar & Grill (8690 Aero Drive), an Argentinean eatery with a fully stocked bar, seemed like an obvious place to start. My excitement faded, however, as the bartender took a stack of recipe cards out—practically blew the dust off them—when I placed my order. Not to call the poor guy out, because I'm sure the 11 a.m. staff isn't used to solo drinkers who order specialty cocktails. But when the cocktail calls for five basic ingredients—pisco brandy, lemon/lime, bitters, syrup, egg whites—and the server leaves out the signature egg whites, you have to wonder what's printed on those recipe cards.

Oh, and they also used sour mix. Yeckh.

The Prado (1549 El Prado in Balboa Park) fared better. The tourist restaurant is pretty reverent to its diverse ethnic cuisines, so it seemed the perfect place to get an authentic Peruvian pisco sour. They had all the ingredients right, and there are few nicer places to enjoy a cocktail than The Prado's patio. It was so pleasant that I almost didn't mind the rim of sugar on the glass. The grit in my teeth tasted like vacation.  

After two efforts with only adequate-at-best results, my investigation began to feel disheartening. You'd think the lack of South American establishments that sell pisco sours would prompt the ones that do to bring it. Considering the potential, barely achieving adequacy is a disappointment.

Expectations were low when I Charlie Brown-walked into El Dorado (1030 Broadway). I just wanted to find a place that could make a quality cocktail, South American-affiliation be damned.

A bartender who introduced herself as Sophie beamed when I asked if they served pisco sours. She masterfully crafted the drink in front of me, demonstrating how to separate the egg whites. There was no sour mix in sight.

The result looked less like a cocktail and more like a meringue, complete with a citrus wedge to scoop the froth. I took a sip. Kesey was right: The world's best lemonade. I downed it, savored the froth. It was egg-sactly (told you!) what I was looking for.

The ease and enthusiasm that Sophie put into the cocktail was truly inspiring. I picked up my own bottle of pisco and rushed home to see if I could re-create it. The bad news is that my pisco sour turned out worse than any other I tried. The good news, though, is that one part of my investigation was valid: no one from Utah has ever made a good pisco sour. 

Write to ryanb@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford


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