Pisco is a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. Made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit, it was developed by 16th-century Spanish settlers as an alternative to orujo, a pomace brandy that was being imported from Spain. It had the advantages of being produced from abundant domestically grown fruit and reducing the volume of alcoholic beverages transported to remote locations.
The oldest use of the word pisco to denote Peruvian aguardiente dates from 1764. The beverage may have acquired its Quechua name from the Peruvian town of Pisco, once an important colonial port for the exportation of viticultural products, which is located on the coast of Peru in the valley of Pisco, by the river with the same name. From there, "Aguardiente de Pisco" was exported to Europe, especially Spain, where the beverage's name was abbreviated to "Pisco".
Chilean linguist Rodolfo Lenz said that the word pisco was used all along the Pacific coast of the Americas from Arauco to Guatemala, and that the word would be of Quechua origin meaning "bird".
This claim is disputed by Chilean linguist Mario Ferreccio Podesta, who supports the former Real Academia Española etymology according to which pisco was originally a word for a mud container. However, the Real Academia Española later supported Lenz's theory, and underlines the Quechua origin.
Other origins for the word pisco have been explored, including a Mapudungun etymology where "pishku" has been interpreted as "something boiled in a pot", which would relate to the concept of burned wine (Spanish: vino quemado).
The term influenced the Mexican Spanish use of the slang term pisto to denote distilled spirits generally.
Unlike the land in most of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, where only very few vineyards were established (mostly for the production of sacramental wine), some locations in the Viceroyalty of Peru were quite suitable for growing grape vines. By 1560, Peru was already producing wine for commerce; over time, a significant wine industry arose in the region. It grew sufficiently strong and threatening to the Spanish mercantilist policies that in 1595 the Spanish Crown banned the establishment of new vineyards in the Americas to protect the exports of its native wine industry; however, this order was largely ignored. As further protectionist measures, the Crown forbade exportation of Peruvian wine to Panama in 1614 and Guatemala in 1615.
In 1572, Santa Maria Magdalena, a town in Peru, had a port by the name Pisco. Pisco became a crucial route for distribution of an alcoholic beverage — aguardiente. Port of Pisco shortened the name to just Pisco, which was the name of the grape liqueur that was originated in the area.
Distillation of the wine into pisco began in earnest around the turn of the 17th century, perhaps in response to these pressures. Until the early 18th century, however, most aguardiente was still primarily used to fortify wine, in order to prevent its oxidation, rather than drunk on its own. This method of conservation corresponds with fortified wines that were shipped to Italy and Spain from other parts of the world e.g., wines from Madeira and Marsala.
In the 17th century production and consumption of wine and pisco were stimulated by the mining activities in Potosí, by then the largest city in the New World.
Historians state that the first grapes ever imported arrived in 1553. The production of pisco started at the end of the 16th century. After the process of fermentation and distillation the juice from the grapes was then made in to liquor. This juice was then stored in clay jars called piscos.
The entire southern coast of Peru was struck by the 1687 Peru earthquake, which destroyed the cities of Villa de Pisco and Ica. Wine cellars in the affected area collapsed and mud containers broke, causing the nation's wine-growing industry to collapse.
Still, in the early 18th century wine production in Peru exceeded that of pisco. By 1764, pisco production dwarfed that of wine, representing 90% of the grape beverages prepared. With the suppression of the Society of Jesus in Spanish America, Jesuit vineyards were auctioned off, and new owners typically did not have the same expertise as the Jesuits – leading to a production decline.
In the late 18th century the Spanish Crown allowed the production of rum in Peru, which was cheaper and of lower quality than pisco. In the 19th century demand for cotton in industrialized Europe caused many Peruvian winegrowers to shift away from vineyards to more lucrative cotton planting, contributing further to the decline of wine production and the pisco industry which depended on it. This was particularly true during the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865) when cotton prices skyrocketed due to the Blockade of the South and its cotton fields.
Pisco was also popular in the US, in San Francisco and nearby areas of California since the 1830s, during the Gold Rush, in the 1860s, and early to mid 1900s.
In 1933, Chile was exporting good quality wines. However, they wanted to add their own version of Pisco in their wine shipments. Chileans did not know what to call it at first so, they called it pisco, because it was already a reputable name.