It’s the off-season in the Elqui Valley. Mid-June, when the final stream of tourists has dried up and the valley – dusty and baked from the relentless sun – sheds its last leaves. As fall transforms into the chill of winter, the region’s distilleries get down to the business of the year: pisco production.
But this grape brandy is more than just an alcoholic drink; it’s the center of a decades-long conflict over exactly where the first pisco was distilled. Any resolution of the matter has economic and cultural implications for neighboring countries Peru and Chile.
Although Pisco, a town in the Ica Region of Peru, was ruled in 2013 by the European Commission to be the geographical origin of the alcohol and thus granted enviable rights to advertise it this way in European markets, Chile continues to pursue its own claim over the spirit. New research released this year sought to achieve just this.
In May, Argentine historian Pablo Lacoste and a team from the University of Santiago published their ten-year long investigation entitled El Pisco Nació en Chile (“Pisco Was Born in Chile”), arguing that recently unearthed documents were irrefutable proof that the drink originated from the Elqui Valley – not from Peru. The most significant was an inventory of Hacienda Latorre in Pisco Elqui dated in 1733 and which refers to three jars of “pisco”, as well as a commercial label bearing the name of “pisco” from 1882.
While the impact of this research has yet to be felt, a change in the European Commission’s stance would be economically favorable for Chile in lucrative European markets. But the dispute is about more than exports.
Not only do both countries declare the Pisco Sour cocktail to be their national drink, but having absolute authority over the name of “pisco” is tied with notions of cultural identity in places that have faced historic battles over boundaries – from the 16th century Spanish conquistadores, to Peru and Chile’s more recent territory disputes. Being legally allowed to define pisco as an integral and recognized part of their tradition on the global stage is as much symbolic as economic: it is a question of patriotic pride.
But for Chilean pisco, there is some distance left to go to compete with its Peruvian rival. Chile might dwarf Peru’s pisco output, with 36 million liters produced in 2012 against Peru’s 7.5 million, however, it is the latter nation which remains the standard-bearer of quality pisco in international eyes.
Stricter rules for distillation have given Peru a reputation for quality over quantity, while the prominence of industrial Chilean distilleries combined with the country’s addiction to piscola – the long drink that mixes coca cola and pisco – have done nothing to counter the belief that Chileans know little about real pisco.
But within the Elqui Valley a desire to prove Chile’s pedigree is gaining momentum. Artisanal distilleries are leveraging more flexible rules in the country to produce three distinct types of pisco: transparente (unaged), de guarda (aged for up to 180 days in wood barrels) and envejecido (aged for over 360 days in wood barrels).
One of the artisanal producers at the fore of this shift in attitudes is Los Nichos. Situated amongst immaculate rows of vineyards on the outskirts of Pisco Elqui, Chile’s oldest distillery only produces 180,000 bottles per year – a number that larger-scale local distilleries such as Capel and Mistral can bottle in a single month. With such a small yield, Los Nichos’ award-winning piscos can only be sampled within Chile; no bottles are exported beyond its borders.
For this pisqueria, their traditional, organic methods of distillation are what lead to the fruity and sweet notes of their Fundo Los Nichos red label, while the freedom of a three years aging period in French Oak barrels make their premium brand, Espiritu de Elqui, drier and more mature – a flavor comparable with a more conventional brandy.
Nearby Aba, a third-generation family-run pisquera, is export-only and another standard bearer in the battle to prove Chilean pisco’s worth. The “King of the House”, as distillery guide José informs me, is their signature “Pisco Aba”, which is made entirely from Muscat of Alexandra grapes and aged for two years in raulí wood barrels – a species native to Chile. Their Fuego Envejecido spends a further eight months in French Oak barrels, giving it a distinctive color and flavor, which José describes as similar to a young cognac.
While this new trend of small-scale, artisanal distilleries is leading the way in establishing Chilean pisco as an alcohol to rival, or even complement, its Peruvian competitor, back in the capital, Santiago bar/restaurant Chipe Libre: The Independent Republic of Pisco is an ally in this pursuit. Named after an imaginary republic that joins the pisco regions of both countries, the restaurant seeks to promote pisco, generally, without taking sides in the debate.
“At Chipe Libre we have a position of complete neutrality about the pisco conflict. Here, pisco is ‘Chipeno’ – nothing else,” manager Barbara Gajardo tells me, showing their extensive menu of cocktails that use quality piscos from both Chile and Peru.
For Chipe Libre, educating the Chilean lies at the heart of the restaurant’s aims: “You’ll see from the moment you enter you’re told the history of the restaurant and about the concept. If you ask for a pisco, our waiters will explain its aromas and flavors and what food we can recommend – few people realize how well it can be matched with food.”
And while efforts in Chile might be simultaneously trying to both unite and divide the two nations’ pisco, there remains one final twist in the debate: sources point to the Pisco Sour cocktail having been first mixed by a bartender from the U.S., Victor Morris in Lima in the 1920s. As history has proven thus far, it seems unlikely that any conclusions about the symbolic origins of one of South America’s most popular spirits will be drawn any time soon.