Pisco is a Peruvian native word for bird, and the name of a town - a port famous for its trade in the spirit. The drink has a youthful, seductive freshness, but also fine fruity flavours. Perhaps worried I would frighten cocktail-lovers, one importer told me it was not a brandy, but in the broader definition it certainly is.
Pisco the drink is a light-bodied, clear or greenish-tinged spirit, made usually from the honey-ish muscat (in Spanish, moscatel) grape, which is known for its perfumy intensity. The grapes' distinctive aroma and flavour is heightened by the brief use of their skins during fermentation.
The ageing, for months rather than years, can be unusual in that the casks are sometimes made from a local evergreen beech, called rauli. Traditionally, the spirit was transported in beeswax-coated amphorae. Its devotees claim that it is hallucinogenic. Perhaps they were experiencing the thin air of the Andes.
The drink is typically served in a Pisco Punch. This is actually a version of the classic Sour, originally made with rye or Bourbon whiskey. There are versions of the Sour with every imaginable spirit, but Pisco, with its muscat flavour, parries lemon or lime better than any other. Like all the great aperitifs, a Pisco Sour (to use the more common description) not only arouses the appetite but also refreshes the body and calms the soul.
It is made by very vigorously shaking Pisco with lime juice (preferable, in my view, to lemon, though some recipes suggest either, or both), plenty of ice (ideally, cracked or shaved), and sugar syrup. The latter ingredient is available from Oddbins, where Pisco is the spirit of the month, or other wine merchants.
Or make your own. Most recipes also use an egg white for texture, and I think this is essential. Use three or four parts of Pisco to one (or slightly less) of fresh, unsweetened juice and one of sugar syrup. There are ready-mixed Pisco Sours, but they cannot match the clean freshness of the real thing. The drink is poured with a foam, then dotted with a dash of Angostura Bitters, the aromatic character of which works its way through the cocktail as you sip.
At the Peruvian restaurant, Fina Estampa (150 Tooley St, London SE1, 0171-403 1342), Luis Vidalon uses honey in addition to sugar - and a touch of cinnamon on the foam, as though he were serving a cappuccino. These two elements give a teasing sweet-and-dry overlay.
Every great aperitif suggests its own dishes. The acidity of the Pisco Sour goes perfectly with the South American cebiche (sometimes spelled with a "v"), in which fish is "cooked" in a marinade of lemon or lime juice. Pisco is sometimes also served straight, as a digestif, in a liqueur glass, with no ice.
In my experience, the Piscos of Peru are challenged in the Sour by their flowery, resiny rivals from Chile, where the spirit is the national drink and widely made. After dinner, though, I prefer the hint of pistachio- like sweetness in the Peruvian.
Peruvian Pisco is difficult to find in Britain, but several Chilean examples are more widely available. I have recently tasted three. The oddly named Control, at 33 per cent alcohol, is completely white and flowery with a suggestion of licorice toffee. Capel, at 35 per cent, with a faint tinge of colour, has an almost aniseedy flavour, with a big, assertive finish. Alto del Carmen, at 46 per cent, has slightly more colour, and a drier, more stemmy, rooty flavour.
One day, and I hope sooner rather than later, the Pisco Sour will be a fashionable cocktail. Meanwhile, try the following:
In London, Little Havana (Leicester Place, W1, 0171-287 8050) has a Bourbon Whiskey Sour with three parts of Wild Turkey to one of Cointreau, topped up with the appropriate juices and lemonade. Pharmacy (150 Notting Hill Gate, W11, 0171-221 2442) has a Sour based on the honey vodka Krupnik. The chain Via Vita, in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester (Heron House, Albert Square, 0161-288 7234) and other cities, does a melon sour. This is made with the melon liqueur Midori. The almond liqueur Amaretto is featured at Oporto, in Leeds (33 Call Lane, 0113-245 4444).
The making of the Sour is a true test of the cocktail professional. I have this from my most trusted practitioner, Dale DeGroff, of the Rainbow Room, New York. The key is not to make it too sweet, and not to use sugar in any form other than syrup. Without the water in the syrup, the drink will be too concentrated.
To make the syrup, use one part each of sugar and water. Stir the mixture, bring it to the boil, then simmer until the sugar has dissolved. Let it cool, bottle it, and keep in the fridge. John Humphreys, of Waterloo Wines, adds a little lemon peel