Who owns an alcoholic beverage that’s been made for hundreds of years? Peru and Chile both produce the grape brandy called pisco. Both consider it the national drink. Chile makes a lot more of it, but Peru in particular wants to be the official source of “Pisco.” That is, Peruvians want the branded, exclusive “geographical indication” for the drink.
“Geographical indications” are global intellectual property rights for cultural products you can eat and drink. The best known are in the wine world, where they are coveted. Oenophiles, for instance, know the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). If you’re a vineyard across the street from one of these boundaries—same soil, grapes, weather, terroir—too bad, you’re out of luck on getting that seal of approval.
Being the gold standard, the Champagne of labels, is often the goal of producers in the global marketplace. Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from the French region of the same name and is made in the traditional way. This is French and European Union law; it’s codified elsewhere by trade deals, regional industry standards, and other agreements. As the geographers Jerry T. Mitchell and William C. Terry write:
Traditional cultural products that exemplify local knowledge bases can be protected in the same [intellectual property rights] way as newly established products can. These intensely local products are especially vulnerable when traded at a higher scale. Thus, despite the potential for greater sales volume, global consumption threatens local production if local knowledge is allowed to be replicated by outside forces.
Pisco’s origins can be traced to the colonial period, when the Spanish Viceroy of Peru encompassed the territory of what are now Peru and Chile. The Muscat grapes fermented and distilled into pisco were originally brought over by colonialists. Both Peru and Chile have towns named Pisco, which take their name from a Quechua word meaning bird (or, since this too is contested, for mud containers for indigenous drinks). Both countries have codified the rules of pisco production and the use of the pisco denomination internally since the 1930s.
As Mitchell and Terry tell it, Peru seems more psychologically invested in what the country calls its flagship product. Peru forbids travelers from bringing foreign drinks called Pisco into the country. An obvious solution would be to team up and share the designation, like India and Pakistan have with basmati rice. India-Pakistan political tensions remain high, yet “the economic motive prevailed” in the case of this famous rice. When it comes to pisco, however, “the cultural context of the brandy as a national symbol plays a more dramatic role.” Mitchell and Terry continue:
A legal regime that allows both Chile and Peru to own the rights to the brandy is a discourse that becomes the true reality to people over time. In other words, the history of the drink and its origins effectively melt away as the reality constructed by laws is the only one that is ultimately real to consumers. For many people, this outcome is unacceptable.
These scholars write that the conflict over who gets to “own” pisco has historical roots in the “long-standing animosity” stemming from the results of the War of the Pacific. Also known as the Saltpeter War, this conflict raged for five years, between 1879 and 1884. The war was the culmination of the geopolitical struggle that emerged with independence from Spain. The war solidified contested borders and the resources within them. Chile’s victory over Peru (and Peru’s ally, Bolivia) was decisive.
Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile. The national drink of Bolivia, now a land-locked country, is a (wait for it) Muscat grape brandy. It’s called singani. Its geographical indication is uncontested. The downside is that, unlike pisco, you’ve probably never heard of it, since very little of it makes it to the U.S.