Pisco Is as Pisco Does

A cocktail with a five-octave range.

Yma Sumac, the “Peruvian Songbird,” passed away last week. She sang what I consider to be the original booty-shakin’ music, and I’ve always been smitten with the recordings of her Incan folk songs, set to mid-century lounge music and meant to accompany cocktail hour. In search of a drink to honor Madame Sumac with, I of course turned to pisco.

Half the old alcohol books I own attribute the origins of pisco to Peru, but this South American brandy’s “official drink” status is a huge bone of contention between Chileans and Peruvians. Both countries make the spirit, a clear or soft amber color depending on whether it never sees oak or spends only a little time in barrels. Made from grapes like moscatel that are usually turned into sweet wines, pisco ends up having a sweet note without any actual sweetness, much as rum has that residual sugar-cane aroma and flavor. However, clear pisco has a sophisticated edge over white rum, and if you can ever get your hands on the gold stuff—invest.

I’ve learned over the years that certain drinks register as a slam-dunk. When bored or adventurous bar patrons leave their pick of poison up to me, I whip out the tart, creamy pisco sour—two ounces of brandy with an ounce of lemon juice, a spoonful of sugar, and one egg white. Shake the drink like hell with ice in a cocktail shaker, then pour the frothy results into a white-wine or cocktail glass. (Fellas, take note: Egg whites are also a huge conversation starter.)

But pisco has much more versatility than most bartenders give it credit for. Add lime cordial and soda water for a simple fizz. To make a fabulous gimlet with much more flavor than regular vodka, just add fresh lime juice.

I also think pisco makes a perfect fix. A “fix” cannot be classified as a cocktail, for it predates the cocktail, coming from the mid-1800s when moonshine punches and scurvy remedies dominated bar culture. A fix requires a base spirit, citrus, simple syrup, and spice or liqueur. You really can’t screw a fix up as long as you add some sort of tart fruit juice. The recipe basically reads like a sidecar on the rocks, with a little something extra—further evidence that the world has only a dozen cocktail recipes, separated only by six degrees of garnish.

So here’s a fix to fix in honor of Yma Sumac. She was said to have a five-octave range, so any cocktail named after this songstress should absolutely fire on all cylinders: In a large rocks glass, bruise a few slices of lemon and approximately three fresh basil leaves with a teaspoon of brown sugar, a few dashes of paprika (smoked or sweet, you decide), and a tablespoon or two of water. Fill the glass with ice; add two ounces of pisco and a bit more lemon juice to taste. Shake the entire contents in a shaker and transfer back to the glass. I like using brown sugar with pisco because it brings out the brandy’s sweet character without making it taste like rum. The basil and paprika act like treble and bass, respectively, to the mellow, citrus-tinged pisco. To really do Madame Sumac justice, rim the glass in a blend of equal parts sugar and salt with a little paprika mixed in.