If you ever thought the rivalry between the Pisco-producing nations was a lot of hype, attending the Tales of the Cocktail seminar "Pisco Wars: Peru vs. Chile Since 1633," disabused you of that notion. Unlike many Tales panels, the event featured a minimum of brand tub-thumping, and actually featured some healthy debate, and not a little veiled animosity. Of the two parties, Charles de Bournet, representing Chile, was the more conciliatory. By the end of the talk, he was extending an olive branch to Peru, saying history was not as important as agreeing that both countries made fine Piscos, but of a different sort. Historian Guillermo Toro-Lira, arguing Peru's side, was having not of it. "Our stance is that there is only one Pisco," he said. When moderator Steve Olson challenged anyone to tell the different between Chilean Pisco (in which water can be added) and Peruvian Pisco (where water is forbidden) in a blind taste test, Toro-Lira said, "I'll take that challenge."
Here's my write-up for the New York Times:
The Pisco Wars
By Robert Simonson
In the spirits world, some disputes are eternal. Who started making whiskey first, the Irish or the Scots? Where did rum originate, Barbados or some other nation?
One of the fiercest surrounds pisco, the South American grape brandy. For years, Chile and Peru have fought tooth and nail over bragging rights as the true birthplace of the liquor.
“Pisco Wars: Peru vs. Chile Since 1633,” a seminar held Thursday at Tales of the Cocktail, the New Orleans liquor convention, did not pretend to settle the matter. “I am the impartial one. I am Switzerland between Chile and Peru,” said Steve Olson, the noted liquor educator who moderated that panel, which included representatives of both nations’ pisco industries. “These countries have been at each other’s throats for 400 years. We’re not going to solve your problem today.”
The seminar did, however, continue the argument. After a comparatively docile half hour in which audience members sipped and analyzed a quartet of pisco brands, the Lima-born and San Francisco-based pisco historianGuillermo Toro-Lira took the stage. He then presented, with dignified belligerence, a slide show of historical documents that backed his claim that pisco rightly belongs to Peru.
Peru’s claims to the spirit have long been rooted in the fact that it has a port town named Pisco. Mr. Toro-Lira displayed a 1788 history book entry that connected the spirit to the town, as well as English and American documents from the 1800s that identified pisco as a Peruvian product. He pointed out that mentions of Chilean pisco began to crop up only after the War of the Pacific in the late 19th century, which Chile won, sending Peru into decline. Suddenly, there were a great many piscos from Chile at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition of 1901. (That exposition is chiefly remembered today for being the place where an assassin shot President McKinley.)
Charles de Bournet, the creator of the new Chilean pisco Kappa and a scion of the family that created Grand Marnier, rose to argue Chile’s side. He pointed out that the Viceroyalty of Peru, as defined by a 1542 map, encompassed both modern Chile and Peru, and much more territory besides, thus clouding the matter of where the liquor might have technically originated. “Everyone was sending their alcohol and wine to the international port of Pisco,” he said.
Mr. Toro-Lira did not leave this uncontested. “But the trade wasn’t to Pisco, it was from Pisco,” he said.
“You had your turn,” admonished Mr. Olson.
The audience included many Peruvians, who were demonstrably with Mr. Toro-Lira. At one point, a young man unfurled a large Peruvian flag and walked it through the audience.
A second unresolved question arose later in the session, regarding Pisco Punch, the storied cocktail that became internationally known as San Francisco’s refreshment of choice in the late 1800s, and then fell into obscurity after Prohibition. The true recipe is thought to have died with its inventor, Duncan Nicol. An audience member asked the panelists for their favored recipes for the punch.
“There’s no way I’m going to give you my recipe,” said Duggan McDonnell, owner of the San Francisco bar Cantina, which carries a great number of pisco brands.
Pressed on the point, he said, “You know what’s in Pisco Punch. Pineapple, lime, pisco … secrets.”