Chile and Peru are involved in the equivalent of a barroom brawl that is spilling out into countries across the world. The source of contention? Brandy.
A particular spirit known as pisco is so widely consumed and so wildly popular in both countries that they have been sparring over who gets to lay claim to the drink through nearly 100 years of decrees and legal wrangling.
Behind the political fight is a stake in a liquor that is exploding into the US. In 2010, the sales of pisco in this country from Peru and Chile skyrocketed by 101 percent which, according to the Comision Nacional del Pisco of Peru, made it the fastest growing spirit in the US. Sales are likely to keep rising with Peruvian cuisine listed as a hot food trend on Food Channel’s 2012 list and American investors helping to triple the production of pisco in Peru.
Money is just one element of this smack down. Another, perhaps greater, one is national pride and an intense distrust that dates back to the late 1800s, when Chile invaded Peru and took over Lima. Some Peruvians claim that is when Chile stole the production of pisco.
They share so much history and culture. And yet somehow pisco takes all the bad blood they have and ignites all these strong feelings and differences.
“There are certain things that people are willing to get pissed off about and customers, friends, people I drink with are all willing to argue to the death over this,” explained Saul Ranella, cocktail director and pisco expert at La Mar Cebicheria, an upscale Peruvian restaurant in New York City built by celebrity chef Gastón Acurio.
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The argument boils down to this: Peru says that only their liquor can be called a pisco because they have strict regulation that ensures that it is produced the way it was made in the 1500s, when the Spanish first brought the grapes that make pisco into the Viceroyalty of Peru, a territory which included what we today call Chile. In addition, Peruvians point out that legal documents have indicated that pisco has been in Peru since 1864, while the earliest mention of pisco in Chile is 1871.
While Chileans don’t necessarily argue the history of origin, they do say that their drink is the one most commonly thought of as a pisco. Chile makes and sells far more of the libation than Peru so what people across the world get when they sidle up to a bar and order a pisco is usually a Chilean product.
The country of origin may not make a big difference in the US. It didn’t matter even when the drink was in its heyday around the time of the gold rush in San Francisco. Then the port city was bustling with ships coming from South America – and the bars were pumped up with the brandy, which can carry a delicate flowery smell and can range from fruity to spicy. The liquor was used to create a “pisco punch” made popular by a bartender known as Pisco John, who never disclosed the ingredients of his cocktail. The drink was so popular in that town that after the prohibition, a bar opened up on Pacific Avenue called House of Pisco, devoted to reinterpreting that storied cocktail.
Meanwhile, as the liquor was livening up San Francisco, it was bogging down the governments of the South American countries. A Peruvian city was named Pisco has been on maps since 1574. A Chilean city was renamed Pisco Elqui in the 1930s. Peru hit back by making it mandatory to serve only Peruvian spirits in the Government House. Chile banned Peruvian pisco imports in the 1960s, Peru banned Chilean pisco in the 1990s.
“They share so much history and culture,” said Ranella. “And yet somehow pisco takes all the bad blood they have and ignites all these strong feelings and differences.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.