The Pisco Wars
Growing up as a Chilean in Colombia, the “motherland” was always very much in our thoughts, even though I was too small to remember any of it, and a pisco sour was a fundamental element to all gatherings. And so I grew up with the unshakeable notion that Pisco was our own Chilean national tipple.
However, as it normally happens when you grow up, I later discovered the uncomfortable truth – it was also Peruvian. Furthermore, there was an old, pre-hispanic, port town in Peru called Pisco who claimed total ownership of the name. However, that detail, I learnt, didn’t deter the Chilean authorities who decided that we were also going to have a town named after this strong spirit. Never mind that the town was a tiny village known, until 1936, as La Union. We needed a physical belonging and there you have it.
But things are never that simple. Chile and Peru have been at each other’s throats about this issue for decades – nay, centuries. Why? You would ask.
Here is the quid of the matter– the conflict is about denomination of origin, that is, which country has the right to use the name and in order to establish that, both have been squabbling about who did what first. The sticky point here is that both seem to have been doing it pretty much during the same period time and therefore the legal battle ended up in the hands of the European Commission who declared, much to Chile’s chagrin, that the original home of Pisco is Peru. The rule adds, however, that this will not impede the legal right of Chile to produce it and export the liquor using the name. And that seems to be the end of the story.
Personally I disagree. Not that I think the drink is Chilean and not Peruvian; far from it. I just think that this is not the end of the story.
Pisco is a colourless or yellowish-to-amber brandy made by distilling grape wine into a high-proof spirit, developed during the 16th century by the Spanish settlers in what was then the Viceroyalty of Peru - and area encompassing both Peru and Chile – as an alternative to Orujo, another type of brandy which was being imported from Spain. Old records placed its manufacture in the wine producing areas of both countries, though there wasn’t an official record that would put the pisco name to it. This came later – records from the mid 17th century place the spirit already in both countries, so who used the name first?
This is a central part of the fight. Peru argues that the name derives from the town of Pisco, an important colonial port for the exportation of viticultural products, located south of Lima by the river of the same name. A Chilean linguist claims that the word means “bird” and was used all along the Pacific coast of the Americas and a third source disputes the latter saying that it was a word for a mud container. The Real Academia Española supports the bird theory and underlines the Quechua origin, so that settles the matter over the actual word but it doesn’t resolve the problem.
The problem is that these two countries used to be one entity under the Spanish rule, the Viceroyalty of Peru, and thus nobody much cared where exactly the actual drink would come from. It was produced in the best areas and that was that. Who knows who gave the name to the drink or why. Both countries exported it, and although it was known in the US as a Peruvian drink in the early 1800s, Chilean piscos were already present in the Paris World Expo in 1889.
There is also a final point to this issue – for the connoisseurs, it is well known that alcoholic content and sweetness vary between the two producing countries and each have also different classifications for it. So why bother? The best you can do is to try the product of each county and decide for yourself which one do you prefer. And so The Peruvian Ruta del Pisco and the Chilean Pisquerias of the Elqui Valley are waiting for you. Drink responsibly!