Peru vs. Chile and the Big Sour Over Pisco

Pisco Elqui, a Chilean town tucked in the shadow of the Andes, has become symbolic of the struggle between Chile and Peru to claim ownership of pisco. Mark Johanson on the big sour over pisco, and the divergent styles the battle has produced.

If ever there was a town named in a nagging, “nanny, nanny boo-boo” sort of way, it’s Pisco Elqui.

This arid Chilean outpost cowers below an ethereal Andean moonscape and was, up until 1936, known by the less goading name of “La Union.” That’s when government officials interested in a bit of patriotic marketing within the vine-blanketed Elqui Valley rechristened the three-street town “Pisco.” The abrupt name change was part of Chile’s bid to validate an Appellation of Origin claim for the brandy of the same name, but there were problems right from the start. Namely, a homonymous (and much older) village further north in Peru in what that country claims is the true birthplace of the spirit.

Welcome to the big sour over pisco.

Both Peru and Chile have waged a barroom brawl over the right to call pisco their national beverage for more than a century. Peruvians argue that pisco, much like Champagne in France, was named after the geographical area where they say it was first produced more than 400 years ago. The town of Pisco, Peru, was historically a major international port for the brandy, but the fact that both countries belonged to the same territory at the time (the Viceroyalty of Peru) and both used that port to ship their goods, only adds another layer of confusion to the historical record.

What everyone can agree upon is that Spanish conquistadors brought grape vines to the New World for the production of wine, and that pisco developed as a way to use leftover grapes undesirable for wine making. When Chile and Peru asserted their independence from Spain, both were in the business of making pisco. Therefore, it could be argued, pisco is really a product that comes from a geographical region.

But this argument is far too simplistic for those with cultural patrimony at stake on both sides of the desolate frontier. After Chile created Pisco Elqui, for example, Peru struck back by making it mandatory to serve only Peruvian spirits in the Government House. A few decades later, in the 1960s, Chile banned pisco imports from Peru altogether. Peru followed suit in the 1990s. Now, aguardiente (a catch-all term for firewater) is the name for Chilean pisco in Peru and Peruvian pisco in Chile.

Chances are what you’ll find floating around your hometown is Chilean, unless you’re sidled up to the bar at one of the increasing number of Peruvian cebicherias popping up in American cities. Chile doesn’t quite have the culinary chops of its northern neighbor (when was the last time you went to a Chilean restaurant?), but it’s known as the business suit of Latin America for a reason. This agro-industrial powerhouse pumps out almost 14 times more pisco than Peru each year.

In many ways, pisco is a paragon of each country’s postcolonial ideals. It’s a tale of the modernizer versus the preservationist, the experimenter versus the stickler. Yet, Peru’s breakneck economic development in the 21st century could herald a new era of transnational pisco prosperity.

That certainly doesn’t mean its pisco is better, but it doesn’t mean it’s worse either. Chilean pisco and Peruvian pisco are simply two different animals entirely—and Pisco Elqui’s checkered history makes it one of the best spots to truly hone in on the distinct differences in pisco styles and the conflict that created them.

This vexed village lies at the heart of a 100-mile expanse of picturesque adobe towns and verdant river-fed vineyards that’s home to the distilleries of popular brands available in the U.S., like CapelMistral and Kappa, as well as more boutique producers like Los Nichos and Tres Erres.

Though Chilean pisco needs to be made from one of three varietals (muscat, torontel or pedro jimenez), there’s no distinction between varietal mixes, nor are there strict restrictions on where it’s aged (often in oak barrels) or what can be added (like water to reach a specific alcohol content). As a result of more widespread oak aging, many Chilean piscos appear amber in color, with spicier flavors and a more floral nose.

Chile’s loosey-goosey rules reflect its attempt to push pisco past its historical constraints, and, much to Peru’s chagrin, they’ve helped the brandy to gain an audience in a global market that holds oak-aged whiskey in such high regard.

If Chile is the embellisher, Peru is the purist. Its traditional method for pisco production dates back to the 16th century, fueling a growing argument that Peru is the only one in the pisco business making a spirit true to its spirit.

Strict rules call for eight approved grape varietals and four different pisco types (puro, aromaticas, mosto verde and acholado). Furthermore, the brandy has to be made in small batches, crafted in traditional copper pot stills and left unaged and unaltered. For instance, at Macchu Pisco a family operation in Peru’s Ica Valley, grapes are crushed by foot in order to maintain delicacy and minimize bitter flavors. Overall, the result of such rigorous regulations is a beverage that’s generally transparent in color with earthier flavors and a grassier nose.

So how, and when exactly, did these divergent expressions of pisco develop on either side of the border? The answer to that question may lie far away in California.

A recent New York Times article by Florence Fabricant declared pisco “the fastest-growing spirit in the country,” but its sudden appearance at American bars should be regarded as more of a revival than a debut. Pisco shipped up from the Viceroyalty of Peru (which, again, included present-day Chile) was the favored spirit of the colonial-era Pacific and the drink of choice during the California Gold Rush.

The Golden Era of pisco punches soon gave way to Prohibition, and the industry was decimated. Out of the turmoil, however, came a new era of differentiation. But the contrasting paths of Chilean and Peruvian pisco that developed henceforward have their roots even further back in the War of the Pacific, after which Chile expanded northward into land formerly owned by Peru and Bolivia.

“Chile came out of the War of the Pacific on top and had a great 20th century because of it. Peru had a terrible 20th century,” explained Duggan McDonnell, co-founder and master blender of Peru’s Campo de Encanto Pisco. “So while Chile experimented with its pisco to figure out the market, Peru essentially existed in a vacuum. Pisco was part of that vacuum, and while it didn’t evolve, it kept its identity.”

In many ways, pisco is a paragon of each country’s postcolonial ideals. It’s a tale of the modernizer versus the preservationist, the experimenter versus the stickler. Yet, Peru’s breakneck economic development in the 21st century could herald a new era of transnational pisco prosperity.

Newer brands like Encanto and Kappa realize that the battle is no longer with each other, but with an increasingly crowded field of other spirits. In a glimmer of hope, they’ve started working together to promote pisco on a unified front in the U.S. market.

“I have no dog in the fight,” says Anne-Louis Marquis, the U.S. brand ambassador for Kappa. “I just think pisco—Peruvian and Chilean—is delicious. It’s an incredibly versatile spirit where you get aromatics, you get complexity, but you also get versatility, which can be rare.”

McDonnell agrees. He said the people on both sides of the border who are making the best piscos these days care about the vines, care about the terroir and care about the cocktail. “When you bring all those things together you’ve got something really cool, really amazing, and, hey, perhaps a you’ve even got a trend on your hands.”

Mark Johanson is an American travel and culture writer based in Santiago, Chile. The former travel editor at International Business Times, his stories have also appeared in publications like Newsweek, CNN, BBC, Salon.com, Skift and more.

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