Pisco has been enjoyed by Chileans for more than four centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that it was organized into an effective commercial industry, starting with the official creation of a pisco denominación de origen. Shortly afterwards, a large number of growers, who’d always been at the mercy of the private distilleries for the price they got for their grapes, joined together to form cooperatives to produce their own pisco. The largest were the tongue-twisting Sociedad Cooperativa Control Pisquero de Elqui y Vitivinículo de Norte Ltda (known as “Pisco Control”) and the Cooperativa Agrícola y Pisquera del Elqui Ltda (known as “Pisco Capel”), today the two most important producers in Chile, accounting for over ninety percent of all pisco to hit the shops.
The basic distillation technique is the same one that’s been used since colonial times: in short, the fermented wine is boiled in copper stills at 90°C, releasing vapours that are condensed, then kept in oak vats for three to six months. The alcohol – of 55° to 65° – is then diluted with water, according to the type of pisco it’s being sold as: 30° or 32° for Selección; 35° for Reservado; 40° for Especial; and 43°, 46° and 50° for Gran Pisco. It’s most commonly consumed as a tangy, refreshing aperitif known as Pisco Sour, an ice-cold mix of pisco, lemon juice and sugar – sometimes with whisked egg-white for a frothy head and angostura bitters for an extra zing.
Note that the Peruvians also produce pisco and consider their own to be the only authentic sort, maintaining that the Chilean stuff is nothing short of counterfeit. The Chileans, of course, pass this off as jealousy, insisting that their pisco is far superior (it is certainly grapier) and proudly claiming that pisco is a Chilean, not Peruvian, drink. Whoever produced it first, there’s no denying that the pisco lovingly distilled in the Elqui Valley is absolutely delicious, drunk neat or in a cocktail. A visit to one of the distilleries in the region is not to be missed – if only for the free tasting at the end.