The evolution of the word pisco occurred through a series of milestones that started in pre-colombia, before the arrival of the Spaniards. The meaning changed in the 16th century, when pisco referred to a region and the people who lived there. The mid 18th century marked the first association with the clear brandy. In 1900, the port of Pisco was named. Finally, now pisco means many things, but it most commonly refers to our favorite spirit.
While pisco has taken on several connotations over the course of 5 centuries, one has remained constant- Pisco has always meant “bird” in Quechua. Quechua is one of many native languages spoken in Peru today. Did you know there are more than 90 indigenous languages spoken in Peru? Quechua is primarily spoken in the Andes. Approximately 25% of the population in Peru speaks it.
The Incas spoke Quechua, but they had no formal written language; instead they used knotted strings known as khipu. Khipu were used for collecting data, keeping records, monitoring tax obligations and many other functions. The cords stored numeric and other values encoded as knots, often in a base-ten positional system.
The khipu system was quite effective, but it greatly differs from our present-day concept of documentation. Consequently, the Quechua word “pisco” wasn’t formally written in Peru until the Spaniards began to transcribe their experiences in the New World. Garcilaso de la Vega, a Spanish soldier and poet, was one of the first to write about the avifauna called “piscos”, as you can see on this slide.
If you have ever been to Peru, you have undoubtedly noticed mass populations of birds feeding in the biodiverse waters along the coast. Upwelling that occurs when the cool Humboldt Current meets tropical waters brings rich nutrients to the surface, creating an irresistible culinary paradise for Peruvian birds. The Humboldt Current is not a new phenomenon, however. In the 16th Century, people dedicated a portion of the coast to the abundant bird population by naming the 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 Pisco province and capitol to be officially created in 1900.
The people who lived in the geographical area of Pisco were also called “piskos”. They transported chicha, a fermented drink typically made from corn, and other alcoholic beverages in clay pots, which you can see here. Over time, the vessels also took the name “piscos”. To this day, some producers still use these to rest their pisco after distillation.
The first wine was distilled 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 historian Gonzalo 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.
The first association of pisco as a clear brandy is believed to be from a legal document from Lima dated in 1729. In this document, containers of “aguardiente de pisco” were the source of a dispute between two parties. This documentation would mark the new nomenclature for the clear brandy we use today.