Wine & Spirits: Peruvian Pisco Stand-off

by WL Author

The Embassy of Peru sets out the find the tastiest and most creative takes on their country’s national cocktail.
By Kelly A. Magyarics

Carlos Espinoza's from Norfolk's Imperio Inca had a tasty take on the Pisco Sour.

Carlos Espinoza's from Norfolk's Imperio Inca had a tasty take on the Pisco Sour.

I love holidays that celebrate cocktails. Who can resist raising a salt-rimmed glass on February 22 (National Margarita Day), on an olive-studded one on June 19 (National Martini Day)? Not me. I also relish the chance each year to sip Washington, DC’s native cocktail during the entire month of July (National Rickey Month.)

Though we did invent the cocktail, we Americans aren’t the only ones who look for an excuse to imbibe (not that you ever really need one…) Each February 1, Peruvians commemorate the Pisco Sour as their native cocktail with lots of Pisco-soaked celebrations. (Peruvians are pretty serious about the stuff, too. When the national anthem is played any Pisco Sour on the table must be finished as a sign of respect. Now that’s patriotism.)

Derek Brown, Kelly Magyarics, Michael Clements and Willie Lora sip one of the Pisco Sour contenders.

Derek Brown, Kelly Magyarics, Michael Clements and Willie Lora sip one of the Pisco Sour contenders.

To recognize National Pisco Sour Day—held the first Saturday in February—the Embassy of Peru in DC and Bethesda-based producer Macchu Pisco held a Pisco Sour competition at the embassy on February 3. Twelve mixologists from DC, Baltimore and Norfolk concocted their own takes on the drink, which was judged on taste, creativity, appearance and how the cocktail tied-in to the centennial celebration of Macchu Picchu’s accessibility to the world. I was excited to be asked to help judge the competition, along with Washington Life editor Michael Clements, mixologist/cocktail consultant Derek Brown of the Columbia Room, and Willie Lora of CNN.

Pisco is a grape-based, colorless brandy developed in Peru by Spanish settlers in the sixteenth century. It takes its name from the pottery in which it was aged, which also happens to be the name of a region in Peru that’s named for the birds that inhabited the area. Got all that? Though Peru lays claim to the Pisco Sour as the national drink, it was actually created by an American in Lima in the early 1900’s. Its sublimely simple mixture of Pisco, simple syrup or sugar, lemon and egg white, garnished with Angostura bitters, is one of those perfect creations that really needs no tinkering, though it was cool to see how the area’s bar talent tweaked it.

Before the competition got underway, the embassy’s bartender mixed up the original Pisco Sour, which we used as a baseline to compare the versions to follow. Depending on the recipe you use, the cocktail can either be blended or shaken. The embassy’s was shaken—my preference. To get the silky smooth texture, though, you need to use a high quality blender. Though many of the versions that followed were intriguing and more than sipp-able, I do have to admit that my preference is this classic. This recipe uses a 2:1:1 ratio of Pisco, sugar and lemon—some natives prefer a 3:1:1, but I believe this one’s potent enough:

Classic Pisco Sour
2 oz. Macchu Pisco
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar (superfine works best)
1 small egg white
Angostura bitters

Add Pisco, lemon juice, sugar and egg white to blender. Add half a cup of ice. Blend until smooth. Pour into a chilled cocktail glass, and add a few drops of Angostura bitters to the foam. Take a toothpick and swirl bitters, if desired.

Jason Strich of Rasika with his Chicha Sour

Jason Strich of Rasika with his Chicha Sour

Overall winner of the competition Jason Strich of Rasika mixed up the Chicha Sour, complete with cinnamon- and chile-infused syrup and house made chicha, a Peruvian fermented beverage made from corn. He also topped the drink with toasted puffed quinoa, a common grain in Peru. The winning drink was balanced and multi-layered, with an appealing crunch from the quinoa. Strich received a round-trip ticket to Peru courtesy of Avianca / Taca airlines, where he can go off in search of the Perfect Pisco sour…and also explore Macchu Picchu.

PX’s Clinton Terry received the award for most creativity with a drink that

PX's Clinton Terry and his spicy Tusan cocktail.

PX's Clinton Terry and his spicy Tusan cocktail.

paid homage to Peruvians of Chinese descent. His fiery Tusán’s egg white foamy topper was drizzled with a chili pepper reduction that left my lips burning…but had me returning, sip after sip, to this savory sour.

Michael Saccone of the Majestic Café channeled Peru by way of India with his Punjabi Sour. His riff included carrot juice and garam masala, and won for best presentation. Saccone’s drink was fragrant and strikingly memorable, and decidedly not at all like the original. I loved its aroma and curry flavor, and just wished the flavor of the spirit had come through just a bit more.

Finally, winning for best taste, was Carlos Espinoza from Imperio Inca in Norfolk. His Imperio Sour stayed true to the flavor of a well-made traditional Pisco Sour, with the savory addition of a sweet potato syrup…we all agreed that this was just one of those drinks that you could sip all night.

Though most of the drinks we sampled would be difficult to replicate at home, there are a few easy things you can do to create your own takes on the Pisco Sour. Instead of plain simple syrup, infuse it with an herb, citrus fruit or spice. Use Meyer lemons or a mixture of lemons and limes for the juice. Or swap out the Angostura bitter garnish and instead use a spicy syrup reduction or a different flavor of bitters.

The national search for the “Centennial Pisco Sour” will travel to other cities including Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas, before returning to DC the end of July for the grand finale. You can get more information by going checking out Macchu Pisco’s website.

Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the DC area. She can be reached through her website,, or on

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