Mojitos are old news. Pisco – the fiery, grappa-like South American spirit – is this summer’s freshest cocktail.
“Are there any Peruvians here today?” Guy Stowell of Moonshine Tastings asks the crowd at Vancouver’s Chicha Restaurant. A few guests in attendance for the recent pisco and ceviche tasting raise their hands. “Any Chileans?” Two others nod. “Good,” says Stowell. “I’m glad you’re on opposite sides of the room.”
For more than 400 years, Chile and Peru have famously fought over bragging rights as to the true birthplace of the South American grape brandy. In 2013, the European Commission decided in favour of the latter, recognizing Peru as pisco’s original home and protecting the country’s right to claim its provenance in the European market.
The victory hasn’t quelled this age-old controversy. And now that more pisco from both countries is being imported to Canada, the battle of the bottle is being revived in local bars. Before charging the front lines, may we suggest you arm yourself with the facts? Herewith, a pisco primer.
Pisco’s origins go back to the 16th century Spanish conquest of Latin America. In the wake of the conquistadors, many starry-eyed fortune seekers followed, looking for gold and treasures in the fabled city of El Dorado. Wherever the Spanish settlers went, churches were soon to sprout. Naturally, churches needed wine.
“Lots of wine,” Stowell intones.
In the northern, semi-arid region of what is now Chile and southern Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, they found fertile land suitable for growing hardy Quebranta grapes transplanted from the Canary Islands. So abundant was the harvest, the settlers soon began exporting wine back to Europe and started squeezing the sales of old-world producers. The threat was real enough that in 1595, the Spanish Crown banned wine production in the Americas to protect its native industry.
What was to be done with all those grapes back in South America? Using distilling methods that the Spanish had also brought with them, the wine makers turned their juice into the white brandy now known as pisco.
And then shit hit the fan
Relations between Peru and Chile began going down the toilet in 1879. “The War of the Pacific was a war about bird shit,” Stowell explains. The poop produced by sea birds and bats contained a compound that was used for gunpowder and explosives. This was highly coveted shit, and the Chileans beat the crap out of Peru. The fecal feud got worse in 1929 with the Tacna Arica Compromise, which ceded control of the Peruvian territory of Arica to Chile. Ever since, Peruvians have believed that the Chileans cheated them out of what was rightfully theirs. Not just their land, but also their pisco production.
A Town Called Pisco
Both Peru and Chile have a town called Pisco. The very first map of Peru, dated 1574, points to a port south of Lima named Pisco. Later 17th century documents verify the port and an abundant production of pisco in the region. Peruvians proudly tout these historic facts as proof of pisco’s true denomination of origin.
But where does the word pisco come from? And what does it mean to this spirited debate? The etymology is undoubtedly Peruvian. The Quechua word, pisqu, means little bird. Pisco or pisquillos is also the name for the clay pitchers lined with beeswax that were historically used to store and transport pisco. So was the Peruvian city of Pisco named after the brandy vessels or little pisqu birds that swarm the region? The mystery mounts…
Chile also has a town called Pisco in region of Coquimbo. Originally called La Union, the name was changed by law-decree in 1936 to Pisco Elqui. In addition to be being Chile’s largest pisco-producing region, Pisco Elqui is also famous for alien sightings. Make of that what you will.
Artisan vs. Industry
Peru might be winning the ownership of origins war, but they’re losing market dominance. In 2013, Chile produced 100 million liters, compared to Peru’s 7.2 million litres.
The canyon-sized gap can be attributed to differences in production. Whereas most Chilean pisco is industrially produced in large quantities for the mass market, Peru adheres to tradition and strict regulations.
Peruvian pisco is a pure distillate of young wine made from eight approved varietals. It’s distilled only once and bottled at the proof at which it comes off the still. It’s aged for three months in clay or copper vessels. Wood barreling in verboten. No additives – not even water – are allowed.
Chilean pisco is a distillate of fermented wine that can be made from only three approved varietals. It can be distilled multiple times and aged in oak casks, which can make the spirit smoother and lend it a yellowish tint. Water is often added to tame the alcohol content and fruit infusions are common. It’s usually sweeter and smoother than Peruvian pisco.
Which is better?
You’ll have to taste a few varieties of each to discover a preference. But there is one point that almost every Chilean and Peruvian will agree upon. The best way to mix the revered spirit is in a pisco sour.
- 1 egg white
- 2 1/2 ounces pisco
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
- Angostura Bitters
In cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine egg white, pisco, simple syrup, and lemon juice. Shake vigorously and strain into a coupe glass. Top with a few dashes of bitters.