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Who's Pisco Is It Anyway?

Updated on March 22, 2009

The Pisco War

There has been a war raging for over 500 years in South America, and many of us, especially in North America, have had no idea that it is still going on. Granted this war between Chile and Peru makes a fight on the playground look like a napalm fire squad.

So, you may be wondering what could cause two countries to act like children fighting over who's piece of cake is bigger, for the past 500 plus years?

One simple word... Pisco.

That's right Pisco.... and just what is pisco, you ask?

Pisco is a fermented, and then distilled spirit similar to brandy. This regional brandy is more or less made from Quebranta or Muscat grape varietals. What is even more heated then which country should have the rights to produce pisco, is whine fest over the pisco sour. More so...which pisco sour, is the real classic cocktail made with the brandy?

The whole 500 year old staring contest going on between Peru and Chile has gone so far that each country has banned the other country's pisco. Each country is in a constant attempt to establish their pisco as the only pisco. We may never see the end of this argument about who is the accredited creator, and let's face it both countries claim pisco as it's regional drink. 

Both Peru and Chile make very masterful, yet distinctive variation of pisco. Who are we to complain? After all of us, outside of South America, have both Chilean Pisco and Peruvian Pisco available to us... kind of makes you feel sorry for those who can not partake in both styles.

Rudyard Kipling had this to say in 1899 about pisco, after drinking a punch made with the embattled South American elixir: 

“I have a theory it is compounded of cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics of dead masters,”

Chile or Peru?

The Peruvians believe that Chile had "stolen" pisco from them during the War of the Pacific (aka the Saltpeter War) in 1879- 1883. Peru, and their allies Bolivia, were defeated. Boliva lost their port leaving them a landlocked country and Peru lost Tarapaca, the key area of land in the desert where Peruvian-style pisco production grew.

The Chileans, believe their marketing and production volumes have given the world pisco. Which is why most people think of pisco as a Chilean product. Chile produces nearly 50 times more per year than Peru.

Peruvians claim to trace pisco to the15th century Incan Empire. and the name pisco comes from Peru's indigenous language of Quechua. The word pisco means bird  in the old Peruvian language. Also were once skilled potters called Piskos that pre-date Incan rule. There is even a port, a river and a city are also called Pisco.

But over all I believe it true that possibly fermentation of grapes to make wine was done by early cultures all over the world. Still my guess would be that the act of distilation (especially pot distilling) wasn't done until the Spanish settled in to colonize Peru and Chile. It was more than likely the Spanish took the fermented grapes and distilled them to make brandy... which would eventually be called pisco by the Peruvians. Again this is my thoughts on the manner and in know way am I trying to disspel either countries claim to the famed pisco.

 In 1968, a Peruvian politician laid claim that Chile's version of the brandy was an infringement of what should be a Peruvian trademark. In 1991, Peru's foreign ministry declared: "Only Peru has the soil, the climate and the tradition in making pisco that give our drink a special taste, and which allow us to call it pisco."  Still yet, as of recent, Peru has sought counsel from the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Chile is still making pisco.

Peru and Chile have continued to squabble about the origins of pisco and the pisco sour . The debates have been so heated that in 1961, Chile actually banned all Peruvian imports. If you ask a Chilean or Peruvian personally about the heated debates, they would most likely respond, “Ah, you just don’t understand”.

But if you look at the history of pisco, you can understand why there is so much to debate between Chile and Peru over it's origination.

Chilean Pisco For Two
Chilean Pisco For Two
Pisco Elqui Fields of Chile
Pisco Elqui Fields of Chile

Chilean Pisco

Truthfully the Chilean government's only real claim is that greater production and successful marketing have made the spirit popular around the world.

The volume that Chilean Pisco is produced is still 50 times larger than that of Peru. In Chile, especially in the fertile Elqui River valley area, pisco production has become highly industrialized in order to meet international demands. The pure water of the Elqui River has also been protected under law to make sure that the pisco being produced is the highest quality and follows environmentally friendly standards .

Chilean Music

Peru Pisco Up
Peru Pisco Up
Fundo Tacama Wine and Pisco Makers Peru
Fundo Tacama Wine and Pisco Makers Peru

Peruvian Pisco

The fermentation process of Peruvian pisco can be done with partial or total maceration of the grape. Fermentation is  strictly controlled, so are the temperature and decomposition of sugars in a process where the juice and the pulp of the grapes are fermented for about two weeks with natural yeast. All this is done in huge clay pots known as “pisqueras.” Once the wine,(which it is after fermenting) reaches 12 to 14 percent alcohol, is filtered before entering the still.

The fermented product is distilled in copper or stainless steel pot stills until it reaches about 40 percent (or 80 proof). The distillation is a slow process in order to preserve the aromatic elements of the wine and the much richer flavors. Peruvian law ststes that the wine can only be run through one time, and no product may be added to it to alter the alcoholic proof, odor, flavor or color of the liquid. The pisco must be aged a minimum of three months in glass, stainless steel or other materials which do not alter the physical, chemical or organic properties before bottling. The pisco must be bottled directly after aging, without alteration or adding any product which could alter the odor, flavor or appearance.

In the book "The Barbary Coast", Herbert Ausbury quotes an 1872 document that states, “[Pisco] is perfectly colorless, quite fragrant, very seductive, terribly strong, and has a flavor somewhat resembling that of a scotch whiskey, but much more delicate, with a marked fruity taste.”

Afro-Peruvian music: Festejo

Peruvian Pot Still
Peruvian Pot Still
Pisqueria Capel of Chile
Pisqueria Capel of Chile

Free Trade vs Intellectual Property

Sadly Peru's pisco industry has never been able to recover from the crippling blow that it suffered, starting back in the 1880s, when Peru lost a large portion of its territory to Chile as a result of the War of the Pacific. Peruvian pisco production were flourishing in the Atacama Desert area, when it was occupied by Chile in 1883. Peru's authorities banned Peruvian citizens from producing any alcoholic beverages such as Pisco while Chileans were trying to learn the secrets of its making pisco.

In 1960 Chile banned Peruvian Pisco imports. Peru countered with an identical ban on Chilean imports, Choices that have jump-started the current "War of Pisco" a battle that's being fought on an international lega level. In July 2005, the Peruvian government presented an application for international registration to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), where if approved, Pisco would be declared "a beverage of Peruvian origin."

Peru’s registration application has not worked out as planned, the WIPO has not been able to establish that "Pisco" is Peruvian, because it is not within the WIPO's function. The Chilean government has proposed a combined effort with Peru to increase marketing of Pisco at an international level. In every free trade agreement signed by Chile, an opportunity has always been left open for a similar trade agreement for Peru. Chile has never been against the "Pisco" appelation being granted to Peru, provided that this recognition does not damage Chilean commercial interests.

Peru is just acting like a spoiled child who to get there own way. Missing out on a free trade global market because of their short-sightedness...their just to busy with throwing a hissy fit. So, the officals of Peru can't see the big picture laid-out before them.

Both nations have established decrees, laws, regulations, and treaties. in order to protect their pisco interests, though their efforts couldn't be more opposite. On the one hand, Chile has concentrated on internal regulations, specifying from what a "pisco grape" is to what a "pisco bottle" is, in order to establish standardization among its products. By doing this, Chile started to trade and promote its product as Pisco.

Then on this hand, you have Peru, who has concentrated more in the artesanal and traditional production, started to focus on the international arena for claiming the product's origin, and arguing that only Peruvian Pisco can be called Pisco and Chilean product is another type of spirit. However, Chile has traded far more its pisco. Peru claims of proprietorship are based on historical argument, mainly that pisco originated in Peru and is still made in the traditional way only in Peru, because their regulations ensure this.

 In Peru this topic has high political significance, associated to the defense of Peru and the Peruvian roots. Arguments of bad practices from the Chilean side are permanently mentioned in the Peruvian reasoning.

Chile has proposed to Peru that the countries join forces to market Pisco internationally. Chilean Foreign Minister has declared that "What's best for Peru and Chile is to share the denomination and even to jointly market the product in international markets, but they (Peru) still maintain their position as a competitor and are disputing the trade name."

The Chilean policy regarding Pisco is that this term is a common appellation of Chile and Peru and, that both countries have the right to use "pisco" to identify its spirits. This policy has been reflected in every Free Trade Agreement signed by Chile, where the door has always been left open for a similar recognition of Peru's geographical indication. Chile does not oppose to the recognition of "Pisco" to Peru, provided that this does not discredit the Chilean rights to this term.

Pisco Payet Vineyard and Distillery (Peru)

Peruvian Pisco Sour
Peruvian Pisco Sour

Peruvian Pisco Sour Recipe

2 oz Peruvian Pisco
1 oz fresh lime juice
¾ oz simple (i.e., sugar) syrup (to taste)
1 fresh egg white (or 2 tbsp pasteurized egg whites)
1 dash Angostura bitters

Shake all but the Angostura vigorously with ice. Don't stop shaking -- the egg whites need to get nice and frothy. Strain into a short glass and garnish the foamy top with a few drops of Angostura

Pisco "Mistral" Chile

Chilean Pisco Sour
Chilean Pisco Sour

Chilean Pisco Sour Recipe

2 oz Chilean Pisco
1 oz fresh lemon juice
¾ oz *simple syrup (to taste)

Shake with ice and strain into a short glass.

* to make simple syrup boil equal parts sugar to equal part water, stir until mixture thickens to a maple syrup consistancy.

Pisco Punch


Submit a Comment

  • profile image

    Josh 7 years ago

    Pisco is from Peru definetely

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Tom good question, but very American competition based logic. Peruvian pisco is craft much the same way cognacs are produce. To be called pisco in Peru the proper grapes must be grown in a particular region. The recipe to make pisco is followed to specific detail. The same details that have been followed for hundreds of years. I'm sure there are small variances do to time of day sunlight touches, amount of rainfall, and air (too warm, too chilly).

    Chilean piscoi s high volume mass produced. the grapes are grown in various soil, sunlight, air all play as much factor as grapes used, aging of product, and maker's perference. Are just a few factors in the Chilean pisco process.

    I do believe both piscos are quite nice if you know what you are to expect.

    I hope this helped a bit... Thank you once again.

  • Tom Rubenoff profile image

    Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

    The drinks sound delicious. I wonder if their "war" has made both Peruvian and Chilean pisco better by competition?

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    G-Ma so good to see you lurking about... Thank you for checking in on me.

    Don't "spill the wine" have a good time.

  • G-Ma Johnson profile image

    Merle Ann Johnson 8 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

    We just have to fight over don't we...It makes me want some wine now...looks very tasty and was very interesting to read as always, you do a wonderful job...Also some cool shots of where and how is will we ever know???Thanks sweetie...G-Ma :O) hugs & peace (do they use REAL cork?)

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you JJ... I used to be involved in the liquor distribution business, and there is a lot of history be behind many distilled spirits. The pisco wars are just one of screwy ones.

  • profile image

    jjrubio 8 years ago

    Very good hub! And wonderful research done. You covered alot!