When Chile elected its first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, one of her first tasks was to patch up relations with her northerly neighbour, Peru.
At issue was not the border, nor fishing rights, nor any other critical geopolitical matter. Instead, it was all about Pisco.
Pisco is a clear spirit, distilled from grapes, widely consumed and produced in both Chile and Peru.
The historic rivalry between Peru and Chile over Pisco recently plumbed new depths with nationalistic hackers infiltrating each other government websites and fly-posting claims to disputed sea boundaries, seafood, and Pisco.
One particularly inflammatory message was found on the Chilean National Emergency Office Website read
Nobody can match our ceviche (citrus-cured fish) and Pisco, or equal their quality
Fighting talk indeed.
What’s interesting is that there are some serious issues affecting relations between the two countries: border disputes, arguments over fishing rights, even questionable arms sales and yet it’s the rather Quixotic battle over Pisco that gets temperatures rising.
At the time this was going on, the navigation on the homepage of the Peruvian Embassy in London’s website read as follows: ‘Politics’, ‘Art’, ‘Culture’, ‘Trade & Industry’ and ‘Pisco is Peruvian’.
Relations between the countries are not dissimilar to any neighbours where there have traditionally been large income disparities: Spain-Portugal, USA-Mexico, Chile-Peru.
In all of these cases, the fault lines really appear along cultural lines.
To an outsider, it can seem almost comical but this potent little drink really does sit on top of a whole heap of historical upset.
The outcome of trade disputes and border arguments are matters for the politicians but for the ‘man in the street’, it is Pisco that counts.
History of Pisco
Pisco is actually a port in Peru from where the drink was exported so there is no doubt that the cultivation and production of the drink started in Peru.
However, Chile produces, exports and drinks far more of the stuff. Although back in the 1930s a Chilean town changed its name from Union to Pisco Elqui, this was not enough to impress the Organisation of Intellectual Property Rights in Geneva which recently ruled that Pisco is a Peruvian product.
This ruling led to some fantastic rebranding suggestions being made to Chile from, one suspects, rather less than friendly Peruvians.
Possibly the best suggestion, i.e. most impossibly cumbersome, was for Chile to rename their Pisco ‘Tresicuatrisco’.
The fantastic thinking here is that since Pisco is named after a place in Peru, the Chilean version should have a similarly geographical name.
Chile is divided into numbered regions, Pisco being produced in the III (tres) and IV (cuatro) regions of the country.
We are led inevitably to conclude that ‘Tresicuatrisco’ is a good name. The fact that it’s unpronounceable was clearly of no concern in Peru.
Economics of Pisco
To put some sense of scale to the economics of the dispute, Peruvian exports are generally around US$150,000 per annum although some claims put this at nearer US$250,000.
Chile manages to export 5-10 times that amount but even so, Pisco is really not a large money-spinner for a country with the world’s largest copper reserves, a huge wine industry and one of the most important fishing industries in the world.
However, any time you meet a Peruvian, ask them about Pisco and you’ll most likely get a strong opinion.
Locals can take a break from hostilities on 04th February, Peru’s National Pisco Sour Day.
Pisco Sour is a delicious lime based cocktail very commonly served as an aperitif in both Peru and Chile.
Chile fights back on 08th February with the unofficial Piscola day.
In Chile, the most common Pisco-based drink is to mix it with cola, hence ‘piscola’.
Pisco Sour Recipe
This really is all a matter of taste so you will want to adjust the levels of lime and sugar to suit your palate.
A good start point is 3:2:1 ratio of pisco:lime:sugar
In a cocktail shaker mix pisco and fresh lime juice in a ratio of anywhere between 3:1 and 3:2.
Add icing (powdered) sugar, usually about a tablespoon.
Now add an egg white, lots of ice and shake vigorously.
Adjust sweet/sour to suit.
Serve in short, stubby glasses with a dash of Angostura bitters on top.
The drink should be a delicate green with a slight white foamy head on it.
It should achieve a nice balance of sweet and sour – it should certainly not be cloying.
Be warned that done right, these things are moreish. Having more than two pisco sours before dinner is an easy but unwise mistake to make.
They seem fairly harmless but they do deliver something of a punch!