Words by Jane Ryan
Sometimes described as a squabble, a dispute, a deep-seated grievance or even a war, the disagreement between Peru and Chile over who owns pisco has been going for generations. The South-American grape brandy is produced in both countries, adored and excessively consumed in both, and they are each adamant it is their national drink.
To start understanding this fight you need to go back to the War of the Pacific, 1879-1883, where Chile fought against Bolivia and Peru. This was when relations first started to sour between Peru and Chile. Then in 1929 a piece of Peruvian territory, Arica, became Chilean, deepening the rivalry. Add in the dispute over pisco and any notion of solidarity between the two countries starts to crumble.
Behind this squabble is intense national pride and distrust of each other's rival. Guillermo Toro-Lira, a Peruvian pisco historian, remembers growing up in Peru and arguing with his grandmother, who was Chilean, over where pisco was from.
"It is pretty important to Peruvians, it has been in their history forever and the Peruvians are very proud people. They are really angry that Chile used the same name for their distillate. The issue is not who did the first distillate of grape or which one is best or who makes more, the issue is that Chile used the same name."
Charles de Bournet, creator of the new Chilean pisco, Kappa, has a similar case to make for Chile. "It is definitely important to our national pride, the consumption of pisco in Chile is tremendous. They drink a lot of pisco, it is not reserved to a certain class as the most humble people to the richest are drinking and enjoying pisco. It is really part of our culture in Chile and we are definitely exceedingly proud to have the pisco. Wine and pisco are our favourite drinks."
Peru believes its pisco first originated in the 1500s when Spanish settlers were evolving from traditional wine-making. This argument claims that Chilean pisco didn't emerge until after the War of the Pacific, thus making Peru's claim a stand-out winner. However, when pisco first emerged there was no Peru, and nor was there a Chile. United under the Viceroyalty of Peru, Chileans maintain it was one country when pisco was first made and thus as much theirs as Peru's.
"Obviously we don't agree as we have legitimate historical reasons to share the name. Remember that it was one country before, the viceroyalty of Peru, a province of Spain," says Charles.
Arguing against this on the side of the Peruvians, Guillermo says, "It is two different countries, two different cultures, two different climates, two different people, two different histories, how can you say that? That is the only argument of the Chileans, they say because Chile was part of the administrative area it was the same country. But it was a separate kingdom, it was not part of Peru."
Oddly enough neither side disputes the vast difference in their products, each produced in their own unique way and tasting, if not worlds apart, at least dissimilar.
"They are different products," says Guillermo. "One is made to proof: the other is not. One has to be 40% abv; the other not."
In Peru Quebranta the liquid from non-aromatic grapes is fermented until the liquid is a young wine. This fermented musk is then distilled, with the heads and tails discarded. Peruvian pisco has to be distilled to 40% or higher, and this is the major difference between the two products.
Chilean pisco is made by fermenting Muscat aromatic grapes until it becomes legitimate wine. It is then distilled and the proof reduced with water to lower it to 40%. Unlike Peruvian pisco, the Chilean version is allowed to mature in wood: if it has been in for 180 days it is known as 'Guarda' whereas the 360-day product is called 'Envejecido'.
"The two are completely different products. Although sharing the same name for historical reasons, they are as different as Armagnac vs Cognac, even more I would say. You can prefer one or another, but comparing them makes no sense," says Charles.
The second argument in the manufacturing side is what proof is allowable. In both Peru and the United States pisco has to be 40% abv, whereas in Chile pisco can be as low as 30%. Only the premium versions reach 40% or above. "Dura lex, sed lex," comments Charles, meaning the law is harsh but it is the law.
Things start to become rather confusing at this point, if they weren't already. Technically, Chile produces 50 million litres of pisco compared to Peru's 1.5 million litres. But that's only if you are judging it on Chile's production laws. Some 80 per cent of Chilean pisco, however, doesn't classify as pisco in Peru or the United States. Guillermo thinks they are selling equally in the United States but this could change because Chilean pisco is cheaper.
Legally, Peruvian pisco cannot be sold in Chile, instead it is sold under the name Aguardiente de Uva. In a tit-for-tat exchange, Chile banned Peruvian pisco sales in 1961, and Peru then did the same to Chile some 30 years later.
Whereas Peru doesn't acknowledge 80 per cent of Chile's pisco, Chile recognises all Peruvian pisco even if you can't call it as such. Charles believes the difference is a great thing though.
"It really adds value to the bartenders, they can chose from a wide spectrum of products. History is nice, but then you have to look forward and not backward."
It has been suggested both countries could unite - at least on the pisco front - and campaign jointly, finally accepting they will have to share the name. But so far it hasn't been well-received, says Guillermo.
"Maybe Chile will back down and say 'ok, let's do it together', but I don't think Peru will. It is too deeply ingrained in the history and pride of both countries."
The World Intellectual Property Organization has recognised the validity of Chile's manufacture of pisco. Subsequently the Chilean government offered Peru an olive branch, saying they could unite and share the name says Charles.
"The Chilean position is to go beyond these issues, leave them in the past and work hand-in-hand with Peru to promote the category as a whole. Indeed, as the two styles are very different, it creates a whole range of possibility for bartenders and, therefore, cocktails to be enjoyed. The more, the merrier."
And when Peruvian Minister of External Commerce and Tourism, Mercedes Aráoz, echoed those feelings recently, she was forced to retract her comments.
"I am a huge defender of pisco. Pisco is genuinely Peruvian. Sharing the title is not our goal."
The last factor that can help shed some light on the pisco wars is the United States. In 2010 sales of both Peruvian and Chilean pisco were up 101 per cent. The classic cocktails, the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch, are adored in America, particularly on the west coast. With this sort of growth market it is little wonder both countries are now more desperate than ever to corner the market and claim pisco as their own.
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