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Once Praised by Rudyard Kipling, How an Exotic Drink Became Bone of Contention Between 2 Countries

Image for representational purpose only

Image for representational purpose only

Chile, which had its own traditions of pisco-making, obtained a right of Denomination of Origin (DO) and exclusivity in the production of pisco. Peru, from where the drink acquired its identity some 400 years ago, winced.

News18 Tippling PointAround 500 years ago when the Spanish Conquistadores invaded Peru, they brought with them their favourite drink — wine. It was considered so precious that only Jesuit priests could look over the production and consumption of the fermented grape juice. When they found the grapes imported from Spanish Canary islands inadequate to make wine, the Spaniards looked for options to set up vineyards in the new country.

By 1563, the arid land of Ica in the south of Peru was found to be the perfect spot for the project. Vineyards came up. Wine flowed, nourishing the parched tongues in the church.

The Jesuit priests selected the best quality grapes for their wine, leaving the leftovers for the poor locals. The latter only had to distill the wine they made from those grapes further to discover a new drink, which was more potent and yielded more delirium to their lives.

Aguardiente (fire water) was born.

There are many stories as to how the drink got the name, Pisco. One says that Álvaro De Ponce founded the town of Magdalena in the Pisco Valley, which in the 16th century was making a roaring business out of Aguardiente. It had a port named Pisco, where sailors from different parts of the world gathered en route their voyage to far-off places. The name Aguardiente could be a bit of a tongue twister for the sailors so they began to call the grape liqueur they liked after the name of the place — Pisco. Bingo! Aguardiente got the name it deserved.

Pisco, now popular in both Peru and Chile, was not destined to stay just in the confines of South America. Sailors took it to America, where it made a splash, especially in San Francisco. By the end of the 18th century, Pisco has replaced wine as the main export product from both Chile and Peru. And the valleys of Ica and Pisco, that gets abundant sunlight round the year, accounted for more than 90 per cent of Pisco production in the world.

The age of gold rush chimed perfectly well with this new craze for this exotic drink from Latin America. In the bars of San Francisco customers were treated with fantastic pisco cocktails recently invented. But don't assume the drinks came in cheap. The popularity of pisco had by that time taken it out of the poor man's reach — a glass would make you poorer by 25 cents — a steep price during those days. The most famous drink in the 19th century was Pisco Punch. Pisco became so popular that writer Rudyard Kipling waxed eloquently about its taste. It tastes of "shavings of cherub's wings, the glory of triopical dawn, red clouds of sunset and fragments of lost epics by dead poets."

What more does a drink want from a writer!

But glory does not last.

Prohibition in the US hit hard, and when it got repealed after 13 years, pisco could not come out of its hibernation just like whisky or brandy. It was not inventive like rum or sophisticated like vodka.

Instead of struggling to find a footing in a new world emerging out of the two world wars, pisco was caught in a fight for possession. Chile, which had its own traditions of pisco-making, obtained a right of Denomination of Origin (DO) and exclusivity in the production of pisco. Peru, from where the drink acquired its identity some 400 years ago, winced.

Soon, they also developed their own Denomination of Origin claiming its deep connection with its drinking culture. The tussle began. Suddenly, pisco started enjoying two national days — the fourth Sunday of July is Pisco day for Peru and February 8 became Piscola day in Chile.

There were other issues as well. When the demand for cotton increased following the American Civil War, farmers in Peru and Chile began to replace their vineyards with cotton, which impeded the production of pisco.

But towards the end of the 20th century, Pisco once again regained its lost glory in both Peru and Chile.

It is its variety that makes Pisco special.

Pure pisco is made from a single variety of grapes which gives more importance to its taste. The more expensive and thinner is the Pisco green must, which has little sugar content. Pisco acholado takes its flavour from an assortment of grape varieties.

Pisco can also be taken straight from a small lowball as a digestive. Or you can explore its versions in cocktails.
first published:May 31, 2020, 15:24 IST