Following the etymological trail of pisco

meaning of the word pisco

The word “pisco” and its many variations (pisku, pisccu, phishgo, pichiu etc.) have been documented in Peru for almost 5 centuries. We have summarized the research of historian Gonzalo Gutiérrez in this blog post, following the evolution of the word since its first inscription to its current connotation: the clear brandy we drink today.

Quechua Word For Bird

The Incas had no formal written language; instead they used knotted strings known as khipu. Consequently, the Quechua word “pisco” (bird) wasn’t recorded in Peru until the arrival of the Spaniards. Here are two of the first references to winged creatures:

«Piscos […] that is the name of birds […]». Pedro Cieza de León, Crónica General del Perú.

«There are some small birds […] they call them Pichiu […]»  Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales.

Quechua speakers in the Andes still describe birds using different forms of the word “pisco”. “Pichinko” (sparrow) and “piscala” (bird) are two examples. In addition to associations with avifauna, the word has acquired many other meanings over the years.

Geographical Region

Because of the sheer quantity of birds that populated the coastal waters near Ica, people began to call the entire area “Pisco”. The earliest evidence of this is a map of Peru drafted in 1574 by geographer Diego Méndez, where the port of Pisco is clearly delineated. However, it would take more than 300 years for the province and capitol of Pisco to be officially created in 1900.

Pisko People and Clay Vessels

The people who lived in the geographical area of Pisco were also called “piskos”. They transported chicha and other alcoholic beverages in clay pots (seen below). Over time, the vessels also took the name “piscos”. To this day, some producers use these pots to age their pisco.

clay pots, piscos, tinajas, traditional pisco method

The Spaniards started distilling wine in Peru at the end of the 16th century/early 17th century, but the clear brandy wasn’t called “pisco” for quite some time. According to Mr. Gutiérrez, the oldest documentation of brandy production seems to be from 1613, in a will of a man named Pedro Manuel. Among the deceased’s possessions were several containers of aguardiente (brandy). This proves that brandy production had started in Peru. However, the first reference to “pisco” as a brandy didn’t appear until 137 years later.

Pisco As Brandy

In “El pisco, la primera referencia a su nombre”, Gonzalo Gutiérrez presents what is believed to be the first association of pisco as a clear brandy. In a legal document from Lima dated in 1729, containers of “aguardiente de pisco” were the source of a dispute between two parties. This legal document would mark the new nomenclature for the clear brandy we use today.

pisco peruano, peruvian pisco

Credit: Gonzalo Gutiérrez

 

Since 1750, there have been thousands of documentations of the word “pisco”. Here are two examples:

Pisco […]  is so good and much stronger than Cognac” Jullien Mellet, Voyages dans l ‘interieur de la Amérique Meridianale, 1808- 1820.

Pisco Punch is “compounded of the shavings of cherub’s wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters.” Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea.

The name “pisco” has had many connotations over the course of 5 centuries. Chronicling the etymological trail of the word leads us through an interesting historical journey in Peru, starting with Pre-Colombian tribes and ending in present day with our favorite clear brandy.

 

Sources:

Cieza de León, Pedro. Crónica General del Perú, 1550.

Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales, chapter XX, 1609.

Gutiérrez, Gonzalo. El Pisco, denominación de origen peruana. 19th ed., vol. 10, Agenda Internacional, 2003, pp. 245–298.

Gutiérrez Gonzalo. El Pisco, La Primera Referencia a Su Nombre. 2020.

Kipling, Rudyard. From Sea to Sea: In Two Volumes. Tauchnitz, 1900.

Mellet, Jullien. Voyages dans l ‘interieur de la Amérique Meridianale, 1808- 1820, 1824.

“Quechua.” MustGo.com, www.mustgo.com/worldlanguages/quechua/.

 
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