SANTIAGO – Today is National Pisco Day in Chile. For those loving the drink, it’s a good reason to have a few, whether as piscola or in a sour. But for the real patriots, it’s another reason to discuss the origins of this symbolic Peruvian / Chilean liquor.
Pisco is a spirit that is produced by distilling a fermented grape. In Chile, Peru, and other South American countries, cocktails like the pisco sour are popular in bars, and for Chile the popularity was one of the reasons to name May 15 National Pisco Day.
But more than a popular drink, pisco is culture, pisco is history, pisco is tourism, and pisco is trade. And therefore, pisco is politics. Chile and Peru both claim to have invented the liquor. And so, on National Pisco Day, all arguments and discussions are being brushed up again. We’ll let Peru go first.
Pisco Comes From Peru, Because…
When the Spaniards came to Peru in the 16th century (before they came to Chile) they brought the wine grape with them from the Spanish Canary Islands. The first grape fields appeared in southern Peru, on the slopes near the town of Ica. Ica is therefore the birthplace of pisco.
Pisco became more popular and they started distributing pisco from the port in the nearby town of Santa María Magdalena. The name of this port was Pisco. This is how the name of pisco came to be.
In the next centuries, the production of pisco declined in Peru, while in Chile it flourished. And although Chile became the first to obtain a Denomination of Origin (DO) in 1931, the historical facts are there: pisco comes from Peru.
Pisco Comes From Chile, Because…
Maybe wine grapes came to Peru before they came to Chile. But Chile was the first to produce pisco the way we know it, and, more important, under the name “pisco.”
According to researchers in 2016, the word “pisco” is found for the first time ever in a document from the National Archive in Santiago. In the document dating back from 1733, written by an official from the Spanish empire, pisco is mentioned as a drink made in the Elqui Valley – near the town of Pisco. For the scientists, this is long before the word “pisco” appeared in Peru.
Also, in Chile, the liquor was sold for the first time commercially under the name of pisco in 1882, while Peru registered the brand in the early 20th century. So maybe Peru was the first to produce a similar tasting wine, but Chile was the first to produce a liquor called pisco. Therefore, pisco comes from Chile.
Does It Matter?
That is the question that remains. There are after all major differences between the two spirits, in taste, production, and sometimes in quality (depending on the brand you buy).
But on National Pisco Day, all we can say is: try both. Raise a glass and celebrate.
Prefer a piscola? Read:
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and made appearances on BBC World Services and ABC News during major events in Chile.