So what’s your choice – Peruvian Pisco or Chilean Pisco? To the world at large it may not seem like a decision of more than fleeting importance, but to some Pisco drinkers it can practically add up to the Pisco Wars.
But let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is Pisco? Pisco is a colorless or pale yellow/amber colored brandy produced in the winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. It is produced by distilling grape wine into a high-proof spirit. The origin of the name is a matter of conjecture. It could come from some of the indigenous languages of the area which translate the word variously as a vessel made from mud or a bird, or it might be named after the town of Pisco, a major sea port in Peru which is also on the Pisco River and in the Pisco Valley. This seems to support the argument that Pisco (the drink) originated in a certain part of Peru, but other scholars maintain that the word was used up and down the western coast of South America.
To confuse matters even more, Peru and Chile were not regarded as separate countries until the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Until that time, most of the western coast of South America was a Spanish colonial administrative district known as the Viceroyalty of Peru. Wine as commerce began here in around 1560, and Pisco production began sometime in the early seventeenth century. By 1764 Pisco accounted for 90% of all grape beverages produced there.
Then why is Peru not known as a major wine producer today? Because in the nineteenth century there was a worldwide demand for cotton and many farmers in Peru pulled out their grape vines and planted cotton instead. But the quality of their Pisco remained and therein lie the difference between the Pisco of Peru and that of Chile.
Peruvian Pisco must be produced using copper pot stills similar to those used in making single malt Scotch whiskies. It must never be diluted after it is distilled (unlike Chilean Pisco) and must be aged at least three months. The two top classifications can only be made from a single grape variety – Puro (Pure) uses only the Quebranta (occasionally the Mollar or Common Black) grape, and Aromáticas (Aromatic) uses only Muscat (occasionally Albilla, Italia, or Torontel). Pisco from Peru was voted the best liquor in the world at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in 2011.
Chilean Pisco is usually made from Muscat grapes (occasionally Torontel or Pedro Jiménez) and their classifications are based on alcoholic strength rather than quality. Chile produces three times more Pisco than Peru, but Peru exports three times more Pisco than Chile.
The right to use the word ‘pisco’ is therefore hotly contested between Chile and Peru. Peru claims that the term is based on a geographical designation just as Champagne is in France. Chile argues that the term is generic. Within the world at large, the European Union recognizes only Pisco from Peru, but some other countries (including the US) allow Pisco from Chile as well. The wars continue.
Now in case this somewhat dry diatribe has made you thirsty, let’s finish with a recipe for a delicious Pisco Sour:
Pour 3 oz. of Pisco, 1 egg white, 2 oz. lime juice, 1 ½ oz. of simple syrup into a shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a glass with ice and add 2 – 3 drops of bitters. Alternatively, pour the ingredients into a blender with ice and blend at high speed until frothy.
Bill Stobbs, ABC Wine & Spirits Sales Manager
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