Peru is the result of that mixture of biodiversity and multiculturalism that dates back to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, and perhaps even much earlier.
The history of pisco goes back to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, in 1532, to lands dominated by the Incas. Thirsty for greed, the invaders came in search of “El Dorado”, a mythical place where there was an abundance of gold not without facing misery, fighting bloody battles and dodging crush and clubbing. In this process, the colonists brought products from Europe that made their life more familiar, among them: cattle, olive oil and grapes.
Once Lima was founded in 1535, the first churches of the new colony were built. These required consecrated wine for religious services, as well as a foundation for evangelization. The wine brought by the conquerors was scarce and treasured with zeal to give everything to the holy church, which is why they began to cultivate vineyards in the conquered lands.
Origin of Pisco
Historians agree that the first grapes were brought by the Marquis Francis of Caravantes in 1553, most likely from the Canary Islands, in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern coast of Africa. However, there is a heated debate about where wine production originated in Peru, but it is clear that in 1563 the cultivation of vineyards in the sunny lands of the Ica Valley was started, with the intention of producing its own wines. Over the years, the adaptation of the vine to the local climate and the experimentation in wine production resulted in the Viceroyalty of Peru becoming the main wine producer of the entire continent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It is not clear where the first grape brandy was produced in Peru, but in 1572, Álvaro De Ponce founded the village of Santa María Magdalena in the Pisco valley, which over time would simply be called Pisco and be the most important place for the marketing and export of that brandy that would bear his name.
However, the origin of the word’pisco’ comes from Quechua. The Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León narrates in his General Chronicle of Peru that a century before the arrival of the first vines in South America, Chuquimanco, pre-Hispanic chieftain and lord of the lands south of Lima, called the birds he saw flying in the sunset by the sea pishqus. “Pisco is the name of birds”, concluded the chronicler.
According to the Peruvian historian Lorenzo Huertas, the production of eau-de-vie began at the end of the 16th century, once the grape must had been distilled and turned into eau-de-vie, it was stored in clay jars called “pisco”. Johnny Schuler, owner of La Caravedo, which produces the recently awarded pisco Portón, says: “Back then there was talk of 20 pisco de aguardiente or 100 pisco de aguardiente, (use italics) which, in the long run, were simply called pisco”. On the other hand, Francisco de Caravantes (probably son of the Marquis), would have been the first to identify the brandy with the town of Pisco. In a 1630 document it says, “the Pisco Valley is still the most abundant valley of excellent wines in all of Peru. From there one that competes with our Jerez, the so-called’Pisco brandy’, for being extracted from the small grape, is one of the most exquisite liqueurs drunk in the world”, so this shows that many people have liked pisco since its origins.
The history of pisco is full of triumphs, excesses and falls. In a few decades, pisco became the favorite liquor of the multitudes, besides being a valuable element of exchange. Around 1580 Sir Francis Drake, the famous English navigator and explorer who also trafficked slaves in the name of His Majesty, raided the port of Pisco and asked for a ransom for the prisoners he took, the villagers completed the ransom by paying him 300 pisco jars
The local production of wine and pisco reached large scale levels thanks to the Jesuits who produced it in Lima, Arequipa, Cusco, Ayacucho and Potosí in Upper Peru (present-day Bolivia). By the 17th century, the commercialization of wine and pisco expanded rapidly and was taken beyond the limits of the Spanish empire marketing that was carried out by the port of Pisco.
The Spanish Crown wanted to prohibit the production and trade of pisco and wines in Peru, but this did not prevent the development of intense wine production activity, mainly in the township of Ica, which generated an important maritime movement along the Pacific coast during the 17th and 18th centuries. Paradoxically, since 1670, the valleys of Ica and Pisco have produced mainly grape brandy in “botijas de Pisco”. The Argentinean researcher Pablo Lacoste reports that by 1767, the production of brandy, which came largely from the Pisco region, accounted for 90 percent of total wine production during the eighteenth century.
Peru was a country where people once boasted of drinking whiskey and beer. Pisco culture disappeared and was relegated for decades. Some sociologist will have to write about it someday. As a result of constant conflicts, the level of pisco production decreased during the 20th century, reaching 11,500 hectares cultivated in 2002. The reasons were the lack of incentives and the substitution of crops for more profitable ones in the short term. At the beginning of 2003, the Peruvian Government decided to promote the increase of cultivation areas and their export, dictating special measures to meet this objective.
The legal basis existed. In 1964, Law No. 15.222 established that the Executive Branch should establish the “conditions to which the production of grape brandies should be subject in order for their manufacturers to be entitled to use the name “Pisco”, either in isolation or followed by the respective specific brand, with an express indication of the place of production”. Almost three decades later, in 1990, the term’Pisco’ was declared a Peruvian designation of origin. What followed was a powerful campaign to revive a tradition of production and consumption that had been lost a century earlier.
Today, pisco is our flagship drink and also a very important non-traditional export product. There is still a lot to do, but the most important thing has been traced: to consume one of the purest drinks in the world because it does not contain water, unlike other similar products, and it is also one of the most versatile for cocktails.