Chilean Pisco Sour
Credit: Karen K. Hansen

Chilean Pisco Sour

Chile's answer to America's Lake Tahoe is Lake Llanquihue. This deep sweep of blue water is surrounded by mountains and resort towns, among them Puerto Varas. Like South Lake Tahoe, Puerto Varas has a large, modern hotel-casino. What Llanquihue has that Tahoe does not is a volcano named Volcán Osorno.

The huge strata-volcano, which encompasses the western boundary of the lake, is the most archetypal volcano imaginable, with a perfectly shaped conic section with dendritic snow fields extending about a quarter of the way down from the crater at the often fog-shrouded top.

Turns out that one of best places from which to soak in the scene across Lake Llanquihue to Volcán Osorno is from Doña Inés on the second floor of hotel/casino Dreams de Los Volcanos in Puerto Varas.

The view was a bonus. The real reason we were in the bar was to conduct primary research on Chile's much lauded Pisco Sour cocktail. After we'd gazed at Osorno through floor-to-ceiling picture windows for a few minutes, a waiter came by to take our order. At Doña Inés it doesn't matter whether you speak Spanish or not. The waiter knows what you want.

"Ola, senor y senora," said the gracious fellow who served us. "Pisco Sour?"

"Si," we replied. "Dos."

From prior sampling elsewhere, we already knew we liked the cocktail too much to share.

The bartender measured out lemon juice, powdered sugar, egg white, and Pisco, Chile's national liquor. Pisco is similar to a light cognac with a slightly woody, grappa-like taste and intensity. Then he shook the ingredients vigorously with ice and strained the froth into a pair of narrow, stemmed glasses.

As cocktails go, the Pisco Sour is a cut above. And Doña Inés' concoction was the best we had during the three weeks we spent in South America. A Pisco Sour is a sweet-tangy gulp of sunshine, an elegant, foamy mélange of grape and citrus. It is "sour" only in that it is not cloyingly sweet, which makes it refreshing in a way that invites leisurely sipping.

Both the Chileans and the Peruvians claim to have invented the Pisco Sour. We can only speak for the drink in Chile, where it is served proudly throughout the country, sometimes at about half the price of other cocktails. It's as if Chilean bar owners want to be sure you try it, perhaps believing that if enough people drink it, Chile's claim of provenance gains legitimacy.

Provenance mattered not a whit to us. Our Pisco Sours and views of Lake Llanquihue and Volcán Osorno created one of our peak experiences in South America.

More information: Puerto Varas and the rest of the Chilean lake country is typically accessed through Puerto Montt, 30 miles to the south, which is served by ferry service from southern Chilean cities as well as LAN and Sky airlines.