Peru and Chile's Battle Over Pisco Reignited by Spirits Competition

Peru has pulled out of the Brussels World Contest after being told they can't use the term "pisco" to describe their signature brandy. Sour grapes?

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Jun 28 2017, 10:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Pablo Matamoros

The pisco sour—a frothy, citrusy South American drink of pisco, lime juice, sugar, and egg whites shaken with ice and topped with bitters—has become a firm favorite in cocktail bars across the globe. But the origin of the pale green concoction and its base liquor, pisco, is the subject of a bitter feud between Chile and Peru, which has flared up again after an international booze competition.

This August, Chile will host the international spirits competition known as the Brussels World Contest, a move which has sparked the latest round of an ongoing cultural tug-of-war with its northern neighbor. Chile's claim over pisco's origins means Peruvian producers can only enter the contest under a category called aguardiente de uva (grape spirit), rather than under the name "pisco."

Pisco is a colorless or yellowish brandy made by distilling grapes into a high-proof liquor. It was developed in the 16th century in the arid Pacific region by Spanish conquistadores, and most trace Peru and Chile's debate over the drink back to the War of the Pacific fought from 1879–1883. Peruvians say Chile "stole" pisco along with the territory it gained when it won the border conflict, and the countries have been fighting tooth and nail to be the one true birthplace of the brandy ever since.

The organizers of the Brussels World Contest insist the "grape spirit" category is just to work around Chilean laws, and have tried to reassure entrants that in official communications, Peruvian liquor would be referred to as "Pisco of Peru".

But in Peru, the indignity of conforming to their archenemy's rules has proven too much to bear. Last week, the Peruvian government confirmed that all producers had pulled out in protest. It followed a warning from authorities in the capital city of Lima that producers who entered as "grape brandy" would face sanctions, and could even lose their right to call their products "pisco" forever.

Johnny Schuler—the director of La Caravedo pisco distillery and a former judge and prizewinner at the Brussels World Contest, and who is known in Peru as "Mr. Pisco"—told MUNCHIES: "It's caused a lot of ruckus down here. We're not a Peruvian grape spirit, we are pisco! We are pisco. We have decided not to take part in the competition because we are being treated as a second-class product."

READ MORE: Pisco Is Finally Getting the Documentary It Deserves

He added that the validity of the competition had been called into question: "It's not an international competition; now it's a little local pichangita [Peruvian slang for kick-around] between Chilean neighborhood teams."

It has also emerged that a number of Peruvian producers—Mr. Schuler's distillery included—were already using the name "grape spirit" in order to export to Chile, which, at 36 percent of all exports, is Peru's biggest pisco customer. "Local people say it's anti-national and it's a betrayal. On the contrary, we feel that we are the Trojan horse penetrating the Chilean market," he reasoned.

Meanwhile in Chile, Francisco Hernandez Solis, President of the Association of Pisco in Chile, said its producers would also have to rename their products if the competition was held in Peru. "We regret the attacks and the devaluing of a product which has been made in Chile before the country even existed as such," he said, adding: "We understand the dispute over the denomination of origin, but that doesn't excuse the insults and aggressions we're seeing."
Both countries have assembled historical documents in their separate claims over the drink. Peru argues that pisco comes from the pre-Hispanic port of the same name, a coastal city in the southern region of Ica, which has featured on maps since 1574. It wants exclusive use of the name Pisco, just as France demands to be the sole producer of Cognac.

But Chile, too, has a town containing the name of the brandy: Pisco Elqui, (although its name was changed in the 1930s from La Unión). The Association of Pisco in Chile argues that it consumes and produces more pisco than Peru, with a national production of more than 36 million liters.

The truth is that the pisco products the Andean neighbors are fighting over are quite different, with separate sets of rules for production, and even different colorings and tastes. As for which is better, it is recommended to remain neutral. A couple of weeks ago, the singer Ed Sheeran bravely opted for a Peruvian pisco sour when asked by a Chilean journalist which he preferred, but not even the pop megastar's intervention was enough to settle the debate.

In a statement, The Brussels World Contest sought to distance itself from the squabble, saying that for 25 years it had been internationally recognized for its impartiality: "We are not willing to be used as a pretext to intensify nationalist controversies, nor enter into a debate that does not concern us".