South America is having a moment. In recent years, it seems everyone is vacationing in Cartagena or cruising around the Galapagos, and South American talents and customs appear to have infiltrated every industry this side of the equator. With the continent’s soaring influence over the western world and particularly its culinary scene has come the rise of Pisco, a grape-based brandy from regions of Peru and Chile. Despite its newly welcome presence in bars from Singapore to Sweden, though, the spirit’s rich history, unique production process, and its different iterations are often little known or ignored entirely.
“It’s not just a spirit; it’s a spirit that has shared tremendous victory and legacy and tradition,” says Diego Loret De Mola, founder of BarSol Pisco. “We celebrate with Pisco, it’s been in chronicles, and it’s part of the history.” But alongside its jubilant nature, the spirit has inspired a small rivalry between the two nations that produce it, with both claiming to be the originators of Pisco. Loret De Mola believes, however, that it’s simply a matter of geography. “It’s inherent that it was born in Peru because we were the first area that the Europeans came to,” he says.
Pisco, as Peruvians see it, dates back to the 16th century, when the Spaniards traveled to South America in search of gold and landed in the Incan Empire. Assimilating to their new lifestyle wasn’t so seamless. They wound up regularly traveling north and south through the Andes Mountain Range and were always on the lookout for faster routes through creeks and valleys. While sailing south, they came across a quiet, shallow, and conveniently located cove in an area the Incas had named “Pisco” in Quechua. When the Spaniards first arrived in Peru, they quickly discovered that they hadn’t brought enough barrels to ferment their wine, but in Pisco, they found an abundance of clay vessels made by the Pisco tribe, which the Incas used to ferment corn beer. They also learned, as they penetrated the coastline, how ideal the region was for agriculture, so they began planting grapes there.
“As time went on, they produced so much wine that they started exporting it back to Europe,” Loret De Mola explains. “But there was a ban in Europe by King Philip IV during the 1640s that said not to bring back wine from the Americas, that if it was made there, it needed to be consumed there.” Because the preservation process at the time wasn’t very sophisticated, wine didn’t last very long, so the Spanish settlers began intensifying the distillation, turning the liquid into brandy. The skin, seeds, and stems were removed from the grapes, then they were crushed, and the juice fermented into wine. The wine had such great alcohol and low PH that it stabilized on its own and was put into the clay pots to be fermented. “So, basically, the alcohols and aromas of the wine were concentrated and evaporated into the spirit, and that proof or alcohol grade was final,” the BarSol Pisco founder says. “It was unlike any other spirit in the world, where fermentation was stimulated with yeasts and water was added to dilute the high proof after distillation.” The new drink was called the Aguardiente of Pisco, and it soon took over the empire. “Everyone that sailed up and down the Pacific Coast stopped at the port and started consuming the spirit,” says Loret De Mola. “And much like with Brandy of Cognac, people eventually dropped the word brandy or ‘aguardiente,’ and it was just called Pisco.”
The brandy started traveling north and south and during the Gold Rush, found its way to California after ships would stop in Peru to reload materials. As the 20th century approached, Pisco was among the most popular spirits in San Francisco, and it was there that a bartender at the Bank Exchange Saloon made the first ever Pisco cocktail. Pisco Punch was so potent that only two could be consumed within a 24-hour period, but people loved it. “If you went to San Francisco in those days and didn’t stop at the Bank Exchange Saloon to have a Pisco punch, then you might as well not have been in San Francisco,” says Loret De Mola.
And the love of Pisco only continued to intensify with the now ubiquitous Pisco Sour being crafted in the 1920s in Peru by the American owner of Morris Bar. When Prohibition arrived in the U.S. and the Pisco Punch disappeared, many Americans went to other countries to buy alcohol, and one of these places was Peru. The Pisco Sour took off, quickly becoming the flagship cocktail of the South American nation, and in the decades that followed, it became a mainstay at bars around the globe.
Pisco is said to have been made in the wine regions of Chile for several centuries as well, but it is in fact a bit different from the Peruvian product. Chilean Pisco is not made in copper pots but is instead done so in pots with a column or divider in it that allows alcohol to be extracted from solutions. In a process similar to producing vodka or rum, the columned pots result in a very clean spirit at a high alcohol level, which is then diluted with water to make it viable for commercial use. Lastly, in order to give the Pisco flavor, the Chileans put their Pisco in wood. “It’s a very, very different product, and it doesn’t mean that it’s inferior, but it’s just so different that it can’t be compared,” says Loret De Mola. “So, it’s confusing that two products that are different in their method have the same name.” But Chile did not actually call its brandy Pisco until 1931, when they registered the spirit as such with the International organization in Lisbon. “Naturally, the organization asked the place or origin because if you call it something, it has to have come from a place of the same name,” the BarSol founder explains.
So, Chile met this requirement in the 1930s by changing the name of a town in the valley of Elqui, known as La Union, to Pisco, and that’s what really started the big fight with Peru. The Pisco arguments quickly subsided, though, when World War II broke out in 1939 and distracted both countries. Many places in Peru and Chile were taken over to plant cotton for textiles because that was a business that would fit into war, and when peace returned in the late 1940s and 50s, the Pisco problem was just never solved.
“The rivalry hasn’t totally stopped,” says Loret De Mola, but he and other Pisco folks are focused primarily on the name. “It’s like with whiskey. If everything would have been called whiskey, it would have been confusing, so instead, they called it Irish Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon, and so forth. In our case, that hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it will because Pisco is not just a category, but it’s actually a protected trademark.” Most bartenders have been able to educate themselves on the differences between Peruvian and Chilean Pisco, but the BarSol founder believes that the general public just wants to know that it’s fun and delicious and that it represents something. “The fight is still there,” he says, “but the truth is we should all be drinking Pisco no matter what.”