Can the same drink be at its best in both streamlined and baroque expressions? According to Miguel Lancha, absolutely.
In fact, Lancha, who oversees the beverage programs for multiple concepts in chef José Andrés’ sprawling ThinkFoodGroup empire, serves two distinctive versions of the Pisco Sour at venues a stone’s throw from each other in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter neighborhood. At China Chilcano, which celebrates Peruvian cuisine, he serves a traditional Pisco Sour, while at the experimental cocktail lounge Barmini, he offers an avant-garde hot-and-cold variation. Still, they share DNA.
“It’s like two different human beings growing up and saying, ‘[We] have the same mother, but I never met you,’” Lancha says. In other words, the essence of the Pisco Sour remains the same, whether it retains its classic format or boasts extravagant plumage.
In both cases, the same traits make for a great Pisco Sour. In addition to balanced sweet and tart flavors, Lancha ticks off three key characteristics: “correct acidity,” meaning citrus (or citric acid) that’s bright but not abrasive; “a velvety, soft texture” from the egg whites, which also balances out the acidic component; and “controlled dilution,” which lets the egg white add froth without becoming watered-down and bland. “Balancing those three things are key for the Pisco Sour,” he sums up. Done right, “it’s light and refreshing, but velvety.”
As a native of Spain, Lancha’s first experience with the Pisco Sour was in Madrid. “Peruvian friends would invite us over, and put it in a blender,” he recalls. Using a blender to froth the drink would create “a frozen texture,” he remembers. “The ice was not all completely broken; there were chunks of ice.”
When he moved to professional bar programs in the early 2000s in Spain, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, he quickly migrated from blender to shaker. “Egg white was kind of messy in that machine,” he says.
By 2014, when Lancha took over China Chilcano’s pisco-centric bar program from Juan Coronado, he knew how to make a crowd-pleasing Pisco Sour. “We sell literally hundreds of thousands of Pisco Sours a year,” he notes. “The one that I want is the one I can replicate easily, and which my clientele enjoys the most.”
Over time, however, he adjusted the drink further, adapting it to be built and served more quickly. First, he sought to adjust the balance of the drink, dialing down the sugar in a cordial-style “lime mix” that incorporates two parts lime juice to one part simple syrup. That said, the recipe is not completely static: He still experiments with the citrus component, sometimes settling on a 50/50 blend of lemon and lime, other times supplementing with fruit such as yuzu or bergamot.
Although he had initially learned to dry-shake Pisco Sours (shaking without ice to emulsify, then shaking with ice to chill), a master class with Dale DeGroff changed his mind. DeGroff advised to shake with ice, but shake it hard, and for longer; Lancha switched to shaking his Pisco Sour with large Kold-Draft ice cubes. “It was one step less, less messy, and the texture was creamier.”
The finishing touch: a pair of bitters—Angostura and Amargo Chuncho Peruvian bitters—to dot the top of the froth. “It’s not part of [the] traditional recipe, but it’s a no-brainer for a modern Peruvian restaurant,” says Lancha.
Yet, with all those changes, he’s still making adjustments. For example, he’s considering switching from just lime to a lemon-lime mix, in part to compensate for higher prices caused by an ongoing lime shortage. Meanwhile, he’s not entirely satisfied with the sweetening component: He had switched from gomme syrup, which he liked for its thicker texture but found too sweet, to simple syrup. He’s now contemplating a return to gomme syrup.
“I don’t think I’ve ever come to the final-final ‘This is it,’” he says.
Which might be for the best. Why confine the Pisco Sour within a single mold, when it so fluidly finds its best self in multiple formats?
For example, consider Barmini’s Hot and Cold Pisco Sour. The elaborate drink draws from Andrés’ time with Ferrán Adrià at Spain’s El Bulli, a pioneering space for molecular gastronomy techniques. The El Bulli version was created circa 2000 by Andrés; around 2004-05, a version of the drink was brought to D.C.’s Minibar. In 2020, the Hot and Cold Pisco Sour was placed on the Barmini menu at Lancha’s discretion as homage to past menus.
It’s all about experimentation and hedonism, Lancha explains: Liquid nitrogen transforms pisco, lime, sugar and water into a chilled, slushlike texture, while the frothy egg white cap is translated as espuma, a warm, mousse-like topping. “It’s confusing, but fun-confusing,” Lancha says.
In other words, not every variation is driven strictly by making utilitarian improvements—and that’s a good thing.
“You don’t have to find efficiency all the time,” he says. “We just find joy in making things differently, pushing boundaries of technique—and sometimes we just find [a version] that is more fun.”