All Santiago residents know the tangy, satisfying experience of gulping down a Pisco Sour. A little fresh citrus, a sweet kick, and an alcoholic kick that shivers down your throat are uniquely combined in this green cocktail. Pisco, a brandy made from distilling fermented grape juice, is its main ingredient. Although you've no doubt downed several Pisco Sours in Bellavista, did you ever wonder what the spirit is and how it is produced?
Mistral Pisquería in Pisco Elqui
Although pisco’s origins are debated, it is certain that special Chilean varieties are born only in the Coquimbo and Atacama Regions of Northern Chile. The Chilean version is made with a “boutique” distillate characterized by double distillation in copper pots. Peru claims pisco as its own, and uses different distillation techniques not unlike those of vodka and single malt Scotch whisky.
The Spanish conquistadors brought grapes to the new world in the late 16th century. They were attracted to Chile’s current-day pisco producing valleys because of the agricultural work of the Diaguita Natives, a group of native peoples in the Chilean and Argentinean Andes. They were sedentary farmers known for their advanced irrigation techniques. Soon after their arrival in the region, the Spaniards began to produce wine and liquor for their own consumption and to fuel the increasing demand for spirits from the empire’s growing administrative and mining centers. It is said that pisco was created as a way to use the leftover grapes that weren’t ideal for wine making.
Mistral Pisco in Barrels (photo by Julie Mercier)
To protect the Chilean pisco industry against imitations of other aguardientes, the government passed a law in 1931 which stated that in order to be called 'pisco', the grapes had to be cultivated in the Atacama and Coquimbo provinces. This not only guaranteed the pride of the pisquerías, but also secured regional economic prosperity. The current law on the books clarifies that production of pisco can only take place in the Copiapó, Huasco, Limarí, Choapa and Elqui Valleys.
The Elqui Valley near La Serena is an especially vibrant example of pisco distillation steeped in tradition. Lush vineyards and citrus farms take over the valley while dry rolling hills hug the sides of its agricultural fields. The region receives 300 days of sun per year. Luckily enough, sunlight is exactly what yields more growth on the vines. With a maximum of 120 mm of annual rainfall, farmers have to make the water reach all their farming needs. Care has been taken over the years to manage the landscape in order to sustain its ecological state.
Mistral Distillery (photo by Julie Mercier)
Around the towns of Vicuña and Pisco Elqui, several pisco distilleries are available for visits and tours. Capel, Los Nichos, and Mistral are artisanal distilleries with high regional repute. Visiting Mistral is especially informative and satisfying to the palate. For only CLP 6,000, you get a tour through the historical museum, two pisco tastings and a Pisco Sour to finish off. The tour outlines the production process in detail. First, white and red grapes are fermented to make wine. From there, the wine is double-distilled in copper pots, allowing the vapor from the heated wine to condense in order to produce the distilled brandy. From there, it is aged in wooden barrels before bottling.
When you next sip into that frothy cup of lime juice and pisco, consider visiting the liquor’s stunning birthplace. Not only will you enjoy the rural scenery, but the Pisco Sour lover in you will be glad.
Pisco Mistral Distillery
Plaza de Armas, Pisco Elqui
Tours daily January-February 11:30am-9:00pm, March-December Tuesday through Sunday 10:00am-6:00pm
Pisco Capel Distillery
Camino Peralillo, 2km southeast of Vicuña
Open Daily 10am-12:30pm and 2:30-6:00pm
Tours $1000, Museum, $500
Pisco ABA Distillery
Route 41, Km 63, 8km east of Vicuña
Open Monday-Saturday 9:00am-6:00pm, Sunday 10:00am-6:00pm