Photo by João Canziani
Photos by João Canziani
Both South American countries claim the spirit as their own—but who’s right?
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Peruvian pisco is definitively, irrefutably the one and only pisco in the world.
I was thinking this as Johnny Schuler, a top Peruvian pisco maker, known widely as Mr. Pisco, plied me—or perhaps poisoned me, given that this was our third bottle—with his chilled, ultrapremium Pisco Portón. The rotgut mistakenly called pisco that comes from Peru’s richer neighbor to the south had nothing on his hooch, I assured him. But wait. In my ebullient haze I somehow realized that, a week earlier, I had been feted with Chile’s best pisco by Santiago’s answer to Johnny Schuler. And I recalled, as in a traitorous déjà vu, agreeing at the time that Chilean pisco was the way, the truth, and the light.
This kind of metaphysical confusion was a hazard of the job I had chosen. I had decided to take on one of the most serious and long-standing geopolitical disputes of our time: Should Peru or Chile have the right to claim pisco, the brandylike distilled wine that is South America’s most famous spirit, as its own? Both countries have legitimate arguments. The original town of Pisco is a port in southern Peru. But Chile exports much more of the spirit and has a town of its own named Pisco Elqui (though it was called La Unión until 1936).
To claim the liquor as its own, in my view, a nation has to show that pisco is part of its soul.
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The stakes are high, starting with the all-important cultural bragging rights. Just as true Champagne can come only from France, Peruvian pisco makers would like to say that true pisco can come only from Peru. Chileans would claim the distinction for Chile. Pisco producers also hope their offerings will join the ranks of vodka and tequila as staples of global barrooms, with the booming sales that would be generated. Even though pisco is still relatively obscure, if either country were forced to abandon that appellation on its exports, the loser would have to retool its marketing completely.
And so, in addition to my own pisco-polluted one, there were other bodies on the case: The European Union and the WTO were already deliberating, and drunken rumors floated around Lima and Santiago that Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and the International Criminal Court might join the fray. If I wanted to resolve this heretofore intractable dispute my way, it was time to act. I would subject myself to as many different piscos and pisco cocktails as I could, in situ, before the big guns weighed in with pisco policy papers, press conferences, and Security Council resolutions. I needed to experience the totality of piscodom in both countries, to peer beyond the eggy froth of a pisco sour and examine the bars and barrels, the cocktails and culinary combinations, the popular and elite ways of drinking. To claim the liquor as its own, in my view, a nation has to demonstrate more than just provenance or precedence. It has to show that pisco is part of its soul.
So, in the name of justice, I had set out for the Andes with an open mind and, I hoped, a resilient liver.
I realized she was looking for something from me, some gesture to affirm her—and Chile’s—claim to pisco.
After my visit with Luis, I went to a tasting room at the top of one of Santiago’s tallest buildings and met Claudia Olmedo. A pisco sommelier, she works for the giant Chilean conglomerate that owns the popular pisco brand Control and many others. Claudia laid out an array of her company’s best piscos, starting with Control C, a triple-distilled, premium export product, and ending with a pisco from Horcón Quemado, one of the small, boutique brands her company distributes.
I was eager to start sipping, but as I reached for a taste, Claudia motioned for me to wait a moment. She then began to tell me about Chile’s historical claim to pisco. In the 1500s, she explained, the Spanish brought grapes and the art of distilling to a region that extended into what is present-day Chile.
She paused in her narration, but once again warned me off the pisco with a stern glance. I realized she was looking for something from me before I’d be allowed to touch the booze, some gesture to affirm her—and Chile’s—claim to pisco. It seemed Chile wasn’t asking for much, just the right to use the name along with Peru, and from what I’d seen so far, the country produced some good stuff. So, in one fluid motion, I formed my left fist into a sign of solidarity with her cause and darted in with my right to grab a small snifter of Control C. It was extremely smooth and tasted of citrus. I snuck in a few more sips, and as I warmed to the pisco, Claudia started speaking from the heart.
“The worst injustice of all perpetrated against Chilean pisco,” she said, “is that they won’t even let us call it by its name.” In Chile, the Peruvian brandy can be called pisco, but in Peru, the Chilean liquor is rechristened aguardiente, a catch-all Spanish term for firewater. Nobody likes a linguistic bully. Censorship is a sign of weakness. I took another sip of Control C and decided then and there that I wouldn’t let the Peruvian pisco dictatorship control me. I was throwing in my lot with Chile. At least for now.
Pisco wasn’t born in a research library or a laboratory. It thrives as a living culture in both Chile and Peru.
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A five-hour drive took me from Valparaíso into the dry northern region of Chile where grapes are grown, pressed, fermented, and distilled into pisco. My destination was the remote, intensely cultivated Limarí Valley, where I met Jaime Camposano and Juan Carlos Ortúzar, partners in a budding boutique pisco brand called Waqar. Jaime is a pisco prince. His family has been making pisco for five generations, and his grandfather was the president of the Cooperativa Pisco Control, the nation’s largest pisco producer at the time. “Pisco starts here,” Jaime said, pointing to the grapes as we rode horses through the narrow trails of his vineyard. “We distill over a real fire,” he told me. “The operation is very delicate. It’s like flying a plane. You have to know exactly when to do each thing; otherwise the end product won’t be right.”
Jaime grew up watching his father manipulate the alembic, the large, metal Rube Goldberg–esque contraption of pots, tubes, condensers, and collecting vessels used to distill liquids. The pivotal moments in the process, he told me, come when you separate the “head” (the high-alcohol, strongly flavored liquid that first bubbles up) from the “body” or “heart” (which will be made into pisco), and the body from the “tail” or “negative” (the undrinkable dregs).
After we toured the old distillery, we retired to a rooftop and drank the signature Waqar cocktail, a refreshing libation made with rosemary and lime. Waqar is excellent straight, with a fruity, clean, slightly sweet taste. Jaime and Juan Carlos are targeting the cocktail market in the United States and elsewhere outside Chile, which is the main reason they eschew the barrel-aging process that many premium Chilean piscos use. Before I visited Chile, I’d heard from Peruvians in New York and California that Chilean pisco-making was an industry, not an art. But Waqar’s tiny distillery was about as artisanal as it gets. I left Chile with this and other Peruvian prejudices against Chilean pisco punctured, as well as with a vivid, if slightly foggy, notion that I’d experienced a pure and beloved pisco culture unlike any other.
It was subtle and not too sweet, the vibrant taste of the pisco just peeking out from the unusual blend of flavors.
On my last night in Peru, back in Lima, I visited the barroom at Central, one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants. Part of what Peru has going for it in the pisco war is world-class cuisine, exemplified by the food at Central, to go along with the cocktails. And Peruvian restaurants around the world afford further opportunities to popularize and propagandize Peru’s pisco.
The first dish I ordered, roasted suckling pig, was so crispy and delicious that, even though I was up to my eyeballs in pisco, I just had to order one last Peruvian pisco drink.
The bartender mixed up one of his original creations, made with passion fruit and cardamom. It was subtle and not too sweet, the vibrant taste of the pisco just peeking out from the unusual blend of flavors. When he asked if I wanted to try a different cocktail, I nodded. Though he had all kinds of exotic offerings on the menu, I knew exactly what I wanted. His classic pisco sour. It was frothy, citrusy, and had exactly the right amount of sweetness to complement but not overpower the bite of the grape liquor.
After one sip of his second concoction, I looked at my watch. Only by a frantic rush to the airport could I catch my flight back to the United States. I cashed out and caught a cab, but even with my driver’s high-pitched horn desperately trying to clear the congestion ahead, I missed my plane, all for the sake of sampling another high-class pisco sour. And I didn’t even get to finish the drink.
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