In July of 1999, I went on a trip to Chile, in order to use one of the telescopes at CTIO. While the trip to a foreign country was exciting, and using the telescopes even more so, one of the most pleasant experiences on the trip was encountering the South American cocktail staple, the pisco sour. It is a mixture of the grape-distilled brandy pisco, lemon juice, sugar, ice, and (sometimes) egg white. It sounds simple, but it's really an astonishingly good drink.

As my observing run was in July, the beach resort of La Serena was quiet. La Serena sits right on the water's edge of this coastal nation, a few hundred kilometers north of Santiago, and it is here that CTIO keeps its administrative headquarters, fifty miles southwest of where the telescopes are situated. La Serena is famed as a summertime beach resort, and as a result is becoming more infamous than famous as the summer crowds get larger and larger. But in the wintertime, it's quite a lovely town, with a beautiful arc of land stretching out south of the city into the Pacific Ocean.

The evening my partners and I arrived, we were shuttled by our guides down to a small restaurant right on the beach, still open a few nights a week in the off season. I was advised by one of the faculty back at school to try a pisco sour, so I ordered one with my olive and artichoke pizza. Then two. Then three. I had to restrain myself since my advisor was with us that evening, but I probably could've kept going for the rest of the evening, until my supply of Chilean pesos ran out. I'm not normally a mixed-drink sort, but these are really good.

My approximation to the recipe is:

Ice in mixer. Sugar over ice. Pisco over sugar and ice. Lemon juice over all of it. Shake until the sugar dissolves. Serve in a tall cocktail glass.

Pisco sours are apparently the main (if not the only) reason for the existence of pisco. The taste of pisco by itself is very brash, too strong for my tastes (though it is apparently very similar to grappa, maybe some people like it straight). However, the sugar in pisco sour tones it down, and the lemon acts as a similarly strong but complementary flavor. I wouldn't bother with sour mix, just use fresh lemon juice and sugar. I've heard that egg whites are sometimes used, though I never use them. You can also garnish with a cherry if you're not worried about your cocktail appearing too frou-frou.

Pisco and the pisco sour seem to be a bone of contention between Chile and neighboring Peru. A since-deleted writeup after mine suggested that pisco and the pisco sour are Peruvian concoctions, and perhaps it's true -- both Peru and Chile make good wines, and grapes are in plentiful supply. Peruvians claim the pisco sour was invented in the port city of Pisco, while Chileans suggest Coquimbo was the origin. But who cares -- it tastes good either way. The ideal place to drink one is sitting on a beach on a warm afternoon, watching the waves roll in from the Pacific, though it's perfectly acceptable to sit in the departure terminal in Santiago getting quietly stewed before your flight leaves. (Boy, is it a long flight from Santiago to Miami...) It's apparently very popular with Chilean cowboys in the back country, too.

A final suggestion: if your local liquor distributor has or can get any in stock, go for Pisco Capel -- not that it tastes better or worse than any other brand, but their tiki-shaped bottle makes a great ornament for bar or bookshelf once you've finished the contents.