Peru vs. Chile: South America’s Great Pisco War

The unaged grape spirit has gained popularity in bars across the U.S., but defining it is not easy, especially when two countries claim it as their own.

10.18.15 4:01 AM ET

Pisco Porton’s master distiller Johnny Schuler was explaining the regulations of origin in Peru for making pisco when I struck his nerve.

We were on a bus on the way to the Porton distillery in the department of Ica, about three hours south of Lima, Peru, when I innocently asked him how Peru and Porton, with all of the recent work they had done distinguishing their national spirit in the marketplace, dealt with Chilean pisco. 

In other words, how did they explain the difference to drinkers?

Schuler paused and took a deep breath and I prepared for a diatribe. But it was a simple, concise answer: “They are not the same. Why do they have the same name? Because Chile won the war!” 

The unaged grape spirit has gained newfound popularity in bars across the United States in recent years, but defining it is not easy, especially when two countries claim it as their own.

While the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates liquor imports, recognizes pisco as a type of brandy from both Peru and Chile, the truth is that Peruvian pisco and Chilean pisco are two completely different products.

The war Schuler referenced was the War of the Pacific, in which Chile and Peru, partnered with Bolivia, battled in the late 19th century for land along the Pacific Coast that included the mineral-rich Atacama Desert. Chile won the war, the end of which sparked a civil war and economic downturn in Peru. But Peru still had its bountiful cultural food and drink contributions to offer the world, including pisco. 

Relations between the two countries have been bitter ever since. Just last year, the two countries settled a longtime maritime border dispute that left neither Chile nor Peru totally happy. Now, Chile wants pisco, too? Peru ain’t havin’ it.

If not for this colorful backstory on the first day of my trip, I might not have noticed all the jabs at Chileans by Peruvians in casual conversation. Even in Iquitos—the gateway to Peru’s Amazon jungle—my guide commented on the ludicrousness of the Chilecano—Chile’s attempt to riff off the classic pisco, ginger ale and lime highball from Peru named the Chilcano. 

Both countries claim the Pisco Sour as their national drink. Because Chile has a different set of laws, Peruvian piscos are required to remove “pisco” from the bottle on exports to Chile (a hit to heritage, for sure, but Chile is the biggest importer of Peruvian piscos, says Schuler). 

But neither country can claim the Pisco Punch, which was created in the early 19th century by Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange Bar in San Francisco. 

Brandy imports from places other than France were up 57 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). 

Johnny Schuler

Pisco Porton/Facebook

Johnny Schuler

But Peruvian pisco imports still make up a tiny portion—just over half a percent—of total brandy U.S. imports (including from France). It’s still double what Chile’s doing. However, over 50 pisco brands are now available in the U.S. and Peruvian pisco sales here are up 20 percent this year compared to last, according to the Trade Commission of Peru in Miami. The category is steadily heating up.

Now, let’s tackle the two piscos mano a mano.

Pisco in Peru must be made from eight grapes, and three styles coming from five regions. It must be distilled in copper pot stills during the harvest season with fresh grapes and there is a minimum three-month resting period, though never in wood.

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Pisco is distilled to proof, or about 43 percent ABV, which requires nuance and skill during the distillation process.

Mosto verde style is when the pisco has been made with grapes that have not fully fermented and rests for a minimum of 12 months, while puro is made with one grape. Acholado is a pisco made from a blend of grapes.

Chilean pisco has seemingly lower standards: It can be distilled to a higher proof and brought down by adding water, additives, and flavorings. Up to 15 grapes may be used but just a few of them are popular. Chilean pisco can rest in wood. 

A majority of Chilean pisco is produced by two co-ops—Controle and Capel—at very cheap prices and in various types of stills, adds Diego Loret de Mola of Bar Sol, which imports several styles of pisco into the U.S. Chilean pisco is often sold at a lower proof than Peruvian pisco.

“Having stringent laws overseeing production and protecting our denomination of origin is a strong boost to Peru’s pisco and is part of the reason why there is a price difference between the product made in Peru and the one made in Chile,” says Lizzie Asher, CEO of Macchu Pisco and La Diablada piscos, which entered the U.S. nine years ago. 

“We have much education yet to do so that people understand why Peru’s pisco cannot be [cheap].”

Asher says these high-quality standards have helped attract more loyal pisco followers; her brands have grown 30 percent year over year. 

The category’s increased popularity has allowed her to bring new varietals and products into the U.S. market. This fall, Asher will debut Nusta, a luxury mosto verde pisco that retails at about $250.

Joined the Peruvian pisco fan club, yet? 

If not, consider the evidence of pisco’s first origins in Peru. When Philip IV, King of Spain, imposed heavy taxes on Peruvian wine after they began outselling Spanish wines, his New Worlders distilled grapes instead. Evidence is found in the early 1600s, when an Ica man named Pedro Manuel died and mentioned pisco production equipment in his will.

Pisco is the name of the port in southern Peru at which pisco was first exported and also means “little bird” in Quechua, a native Peruvian language.

“We’re very proud of our history. You can trace it back without a problem. I don’t think the Chilean product can do that,” says Loret de Mola.

On the contrary: Chile seems to have molded its heritage as pisco popularity grew. 

The epicenter of Chile’s pisco production, Pisco Elqui, wasn’t given that name until 1936, making it curious the country didn’t name their spirit Elqui brandy in reference to its origin, Loret de Mola says. After all, Bolivia calls its native grape spirit Singani after a village near its first distillation place. 

“I only have a theory,” Loret de Mola says of why Chile claims the name pisco. “What happened in 1933? The repeal of Prohibition. The American market—the largest consumer market—opened its doors for being to bring liquor and wine back. 

"At that time, Chile was already producing good quality wines and they wanted to piggyback their brandy with their shipments of wine. They started to call it pisco because commercially it would be a reputable name to be distinguished by. Peru already had [pisco].”

And now, the U.S. is getting even more of it. But please—do not ask for a Chilecano.