Trick Question: Where is the Pisco Sour From?

1874 - Underground - 253

If you look at the Wikipedia page on the Pisco Sour, you will find its creation reduced to a single personality.  Ancient Greek chroniclers of philosophy, like Diogenes Laertius, couldn’t help but reduce their subject into neat, but over-simplified, personality-cult tales of who instructed whom, and told the tale of Greek philosophy not so-much in terms of the development of thought, but rather in the characters of individual, remarkable men.  The history of mixed drinks is all too often likewise presented in terms of drinks being ‘invented’ by remarkable figures.

I remember the days when I engaged in plenty of the same, regaling customers with stories about the ‘history’ of the drink of the moment.  I enjoyed telling the stories as much as my audience enjoyed hearing them.  People like to feel connected to something historic.  It seems to be a compelling-enough human need that some really good stories get imagined and shared (and not just about drinks).

But for anyone with the impulse to dig deeper, and with a de-mythologized eye, the stories can tend to unravel.  R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” might be appropriate listening as you read this.

The Wikipedia page on the Pisco Sour credits its ‘invention’ to Victor Vaughn Morris, an American bar-tender who allegedly went to Peru in 1903 and opened his own bar there in 1916.  Other stories tell of another creator, Elliot Stubb, in Peru earlier than Morris.  Does no one else but me find it highly doubtful that the first Pisco Sour was made by Morris, Stubb, or anyone else in Peru?

I am doubtful because Pisco brandy was brought to San Francisco during the gold rush era by ships carrying would-be prospectors around South America from the eastern coast of the U.S.A.  The ships stopped for necessities at ports along the way and would also lay on any luxury goods that could be carred to San Francisco and sold there.  San Francisco had quickly become the first truly wealthy city on the western coast of North America, and luxury goods were in high demand.  The 1849 book, Four Months Among the Gold Miners of Alta California (the modern U.S. State of California) by Henry Vizetelly documents ships bound for San Francisco picking up Pisco brandy along the way.  The 1874 book, Underground by Thomas Knox describes the already-well-developed ubiquity of Pisco brandy in San Francisco saloons.  The image at the top of this post is from that 1874 book.

So, there was Pisco brandy in San Francisco before Morris or Stubb ever went to Peru — and perhaps before either men became San Francisco bar-tenders, for that matter.  At some time between the onset of the gold rush in 1848 and Knox’s book in 1874, San Francisco became the point of contact between American mixology and Pisco brandy.  It was probably much closer to 1848 than to 1874.

If you want to know some of the first drinks that any, run-of-the-mill and unremarkable American bar-tender would have made with Pisco brandy, just look at the drink books of the era — such as How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas in 1862.  Here are the very basic drinks any unremarkable American bar-tender would’ve tried out with Pisco Brandy without needing even the slightest of inspiration: Pisco Cocktail, Pisco Sling, Pisco Toddy, Pisco Punch, Pisco Fix — and yes, Pisco Sour.  There were probably even Pisco Crustas, Cobblers and Juleps made in San Francisco during that time.

There is a curious side note here.  Jerry Thomas never once mentioned Pisco brandy in his book.  But, he seems to have claimed having been in San Francisco during the gold rush and tending bar there — when Pisco brandy was all over San Francisco.  It makes one wonder if his claim of having ‘invented’ the Tom & Jerry (an eggnog) was his only big lie.  Would-be bar-tenders still routinely falsify bar-tending experience for their resumes.  I imagine Thomas might have counted on the difficulty in verifying San Francisco experience from New York in those days.

After Stubb, Morris, or any other, brought the Pisco Sour there, the most interesting two things that Peru gave to the drink were its legend and Citrus aurantifolia, the bartender’s lime (a.k.a. Key lime — especially if from the Florida Keys).  The first Pisco Sours, made almost certainly in San Francisco, probably had lemon juice in them.  Peru has not so many lemons, but lots of bartender’s limes. Also, by the time Morris was hocking Pisco Sours in Lima, it would have been less uncommon to use bitters and egg white in a sour than it would have been to use either in one fifty years earlier.

Here are two recipes for the Pisco Sour — each variant probably a faithful representation of its own place in time and geography.  I like them both.  And, while I slightly favor the more-widely known Peruvian version, I would bet almost everything I own that the drink was first made decades earlier in San Francisco.

San Francisco Pisco SourPeruvian Pisco Sour

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