Pisco – A Sour Dispute
Importation and sales of Pisco in the United States grew over 100% last year as the alcoholic beverage is starting to once again become fashionable around the world. Although the surge in demand for Pisco is of little import to consumers, it has resulted in a windfall for producers. To protect these profits, Peru has been involved in a decades-long struggle to gain worldwide recognition of its exclusive right to the use of the Pisco name as an appellation of origin. This fierce desire to limit the use of the name has come up once again as it has been revealed that US companies are now marketing products under the Pisco name.
Pisco is a form of brandy that is South America’s oldest spirit. It traces its roots back to the 16th century, when Spanish colonists in what is today southern Peru began to produce the wine for their own consumption out of grapes deemed undesirable for export. The drink quickly became a favorite of sailors , who called it Pisco, after the Peruvian port from which it was thought to originate. By the 18th century, Pisco became the drink of choice of sailors around the world because of its low price, availability, and strong taste. In the early 20th century, a beverage known as Pisco also began to be produced in Chile, although it was quite distinct from Peruvian Pisco; because the Chileans used different varieties of grapes and a different distillation process, the two alcoholic beverages are different both in terms of taste and appearance. Due to various factors, the Chilean Pisco soon came to dominate the international market for Pisco at the expense of its Peruvian counterpart.
To protect the domestic Pisco industry, Peru has long lobbied for the exclusive right to the use of the name Pisco, arguing it should only be applied to products from the region surrounding Pisco, Peru. Such geographic indications have long been used in the alcoholic beverage industry. For example, Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, Grappa can only be grown in Italy, and Port wine can only be produced in the Douro Valley of Portugal. If produced elsewhere, these beverages are prohibited from incorporating the geographic indicator on their labels.
According to the Lisbon Agreement of the World Intellectual Property Organization, to qualify for a geographic indicator, or appellation of origin, a product must come from a region that imbues that product with distinctive characteristics. Furthermore, the product should take up the name of the land from which it comes. Peru has argued that only Peruvian Pisco meets the appellation of origin requirements because there is only one place in the word called Pisco, and only in this region do the specific climatic characteristics and production methods converge to enable the creation of Pisco.
Currently, Peru’s appellation of origin has been accepted by a number of Latin American and Southeast Asian countries. WIPO member states give exclusivity to Peru, unless they are bound by previous trade pacts with Chile, wherein the Chileans are allowed use of the name Pisco. For example, members of the European Union cannot accept Peru’s request for exclusivity for this reason. Furthermore, Peru continues to approach individual nations with requests for recognition of its exclusivity. The Chilean Pisco industry has responded with a massive campaign promoting the beverage as a traditional beverage.
Given the bitter dispute that Peru has engaged in with Chile, it is of little wonder that the Peruvians have reacted with such disdain to recent news that U.S. distillers are now marketing products under the name Pisco. Most of the criticism has been aimed at the Peruvian government, which people argue should have been more aware of what was going on in the United States. Many of these critics argue that the government should sue the U.S. producers to protect the name of its national beverage. However, in truth there is little the Peruvian government can do. The United States has never accepted Peru’s exclusive use of the term. In fact, Pisco was specifically mentioned in the Free-Trade Agreement between the United States and Peru.
Although unlikely to do so, Peru may want to consider adopting a new approach in its battle to protect the domestic Pisco industry. Instead of convincing the world that only it should be able to use the name Pisco, the Peruvians could explain what makes their product so special and different from the competition. The Colombians undertook such a marketing campaign to perfection with their coffee. To this day, people hold Colombian coffee in high esteem. If Peru were to follow suit, maybe one day we will hear people at bars asking for “Peruvian Pisco.”