Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chilean Pisco: “Aguardiente with the flavor of muscatel grapes”

Pisco, named for the Peruvian port from which it was first exported, is brandy made from grapes grown along the arid Pacific coasts of Peru and Chile. It is also a “Peruvian Flag Product,” a focus of Peruvian national pride and a continuing source of recrimination between Peru and Chile, where the name “Pisco” is also used; unfairly according to Peru.

 Peruvian Pisco                                                                    Chilean Pisco

And all this, of course, has historical origins:

As humans discovered by at least 10,000 years ago, when fruit juices or other sweet liquids are colonized by yeasts, the sugars are turned into alcohol and a gas (carbon dioxide) is released.   In fermentation of bread dough the CO2 makes bread rise, and fermentation of fruit juices makes alcohol, turning juice into wine.  But fermentation stops when alcohol levels approach 15%.  

By the 10th century, the Chinese discovered that when the vapors from heated wine were condensed, the result was higher in alcohol that the original wine; they discovered distillation.  Distillation was familiar to the Arabs in the 11th and 12th centuries (“alcohol” is from the Arabic), and aguardiente, the result of distillation, was being used medicinally in Europe in the 16th century.

Thus when the Spanish arrived in Chile in the 1540s, they were familiar with the medicinal use of distilled spirits and used aguardiente to treat battle wounds, illnesses, plagues and fevers.

Most Spanish aguardinete was made from wine (although any fermented product containing alcohol could be used) and

…the wine culture that came to Spaniards from Andalucía and Extremadura--thanks to their Arab heritage—allowed them to transfer the technology of distillation to Chilean viticulture. The Andalucian and  Extremaduran  conquistador-business men, situated in the north of the Kingdom of Chile found a territory ideally suited to develop their Spanish-Arab cultural tradition of the cultivation and harvest of grapes from the vines and vineyards brought into the country before 1548.  The dryness of the semiarid north, combined with the strong sun, ripened grapes with elevated concentrations of sugar and produced wines with a higher concentration of alcohol that those produced between Santiago and Concepción.  New Lands, new sun: a new product.[1]

The strong sweet wines that were that new product were also a good raw material for the production of aguardiente, which was being produced in Chile by 1558. 

Aguardiente was not necessarily produced from wine, however.  Wine was fermented with the skins, seeds, stems (and occasional foreign matter).  After fermentation this residue (orujos; “pomace” in English) was separated from the wine and pressed to extract the remaining liquid, which was then distilled to make aguardiente de orujos, or simply orujos. In Italy liquor produced in this manner is called grapa.[2]

“Unfortunately,” noted Claudio Gay, French botanist and naturalist in Chile in the 1830s “the method used, combined with the lack of cleanliness, always results in an unpleasant taste.  [This is because] the stills are so simple and imperfect.” 

The aguardientes de orujos, are made only on haciendas, especially in the south.

They are known by the unpleasant name of aguardiente de chivato [tattletale] because of their bad taste.  To eliminate it, they are distilled a second time, and in this form they are supplied to the merchants who mix them with aguardiente made from wine and perfume them with a few drops of  essence of anise from the apothecary.  

As a rule it is the lower classes, the peons, laborers, miners, who drink this Chilean aguardiente, and they drink a lot of it.

The Chileans also make aguardiente from peaches, pears, figs, etc., as well as from wheat, corn, barley and ultimately from rye. Wheat, especially bread wheat, is most used, because it produces a better and more abundant result. Aguardiente made from barley is sour, tastes scorched, and must be treated like aguardiente de chivato to make it tolerable.[3]

These pomace aguardientes, as well as those made from other sources of alcohol, continued to be made in the recent past, and are probably being made today.  Catalina Codelia Contreras’ thesis on clandestine production of aguardiente in Doñihue 1950-1980, explained that among the raw materials fermented as the first step in making aguardiente were:  “yeast and sugar, pears, very ripe apples or peaches with sugar, white grapes, pomace (that only needs sugar and water to ferment again), wine with sediments, wine and chicha [partially fermented wine], corn, etc.”[4]

But in Gay’s time as well as today, the better aguardientes  were made from wine.  One of the few modern Chilean aguardientes (sold under than name, and not as pisco) is Aguardiente Doñihue, “distilled from selected wines.”  At 100 proof (50%) alcohol and about $5 US a liter, it is not exactly sippin’ whisky, but it is very popular around Christmas and New Year for making cola de mono, “monkey’s tail,” a coffee flavored milk punch.



Aguardiente is also the basis for a variety of flavored artisanal liqueurs, especially enguindao (or guindado or guindao) made from sour cherries, macerated in aguardiente for several months, then sweetened and bottled.


Guindas “sour cherries”                      
Enguindado in week one

Aguardiente de Pisco

Aguardiente was also being made in other areas of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which included Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina, as well as Peru and Chile. In Columbia, Ecuador and parts of Peru, the usual source material was sugar cane, but in the dry southern valley of the Rio Ica, 150 miles south of Lima, aguardiente was being made from grapes, both aromatic varieties like muscatel and from non-aromatic varieties.

Swiss naturalist and explorer Johann Jakob von Tschudi (1818-1889) visited the area in the 1830s and wrote[5]:

  Shortly there after, aguardiente de Pisco, now simply called “Pisco” arrived in California.

In 1839, early in the year, the brig Daniel O’Connell, an English vessel, Andrés Murcilla master, arrived at Yerba Buena from Payta, Peru, with a cargo of Peruvian and other foreign goods, having on board a considerable quantity of pisco or italia, a fine delicate liquor manufactured at a place called Pisco.[6]

Today Peruvian pisco is made in four legally defined styles: Pure, made from a single non-aromatic variety of grape; Aromatic, made from a single Muscat or other aromatic grape variety; Mosto Verde, made from partially ferment grape juice, and Alcholado, blended from two or more grape varieties, aromatic or non-aromatic.   It is legally defined as “Aguardiente obtained exclusively by distillation of fresh, recently fermented juice of pisco grapes (Quebranta, Negra Corriente, Mollar, Italia, Moscatel, Albilla, Torontel and Uvina) using methods that maintain the tradition of quality established in recognized production zones.” It must be made in these zones; distilled to between 38 and 42% alcohol, not diluted with water;  distilled in batches, not in continuous stills; and must be aged for at least three months in glass or stainless steel. It may not be aged in wood or include additions that would change its color or flavor. In short, it is an artisanal rather than an industrial product.  Many piscos are made to be drunk straight, and some piscos are produced to sell for high prices in the international prestige liquor market [7]

Chilean Pisco

Among the aguardientes made in Chile in the colonial period and after, the best were made from the strong sweet wines of the Norte Chico, discussed above, and especially those of the valley of the Rio Elqui, 300 miles north of Santiago.  With a reputed 340 days of sun a year, an elevation of 4,000 feet, clear hot days and cold nights, the environment is ideal for grape varieties like Muscat and Pedro Jiménes, Chilean counterparts of the grapes used for sherry in Spain.  They produce wines with floral aromas and high levels of alcohol.  And, according to Chilean historian Cortés Olivares, they were called “pisco:”  

…by the end of the 18th and throughout the 19th century, the use of the word “Pisco” was commonly used in Chilean society to refer to aguardiente with aromatic characteristics, alcohol content and production techniques required for special grape varieties, in contrast to the aguardiente produced south of Aconagua from pomace or wine with sediments.[8]

Vineyards in the Valley of the Rio Elqui

Like Peruvian pisco, Chilean pisco was originally produced in small quantities in pot stills, but today most is produced by industrial methods using continuous distillation and is distilled to 60 to 73% alcohol, then diluted.  It is produced in four grades: common or traditional pisco at 30% alcohol, Especial at 35%, Reserva at 40%,  and Gran Pisco at 43%.   In addition to the alcohol content, higher grades of pisco may be made from all or a higher percentage of aromatic grapes.  Some piscos are also aged in wood for varying periods of time, producing smoother amber-tinted piscos with characteristic wood flavors for drinking unmixed.

 19th century pot still at Pisco Mistral distillery
One pisco that continues to be distilled in batches in pot stills is Pisco Mistral.  See their website for a virtual tour.

Today pisco especial is the pisco most commonly found in supermarkets and liquor stores, with a price of about 2,000 CLP ($4 US) a bottle. It is usually drunk in the ubiquitous pisco sour, or as piscola (pisco + cola), a name many native English speakers find appropriate. 

Other pisco sour recipes include egg white, replace the simple syrup with powdered sugar, or use Key limes (lemon de pica), but this is the one I prefer.  It is usually served in a Champagne flute.

The controversy

Peru objects to the use of the term pisco, named after a Peruvian port, for Chilean aguardiente.  Peruvian Ambassador Gonzalo Gutierrez Reinel, Vice-Minister Secretary General of Foreign Affairs, argues that:

There is only one pisco, simply because only one product in the world meets the requirements of the appellation of origin for this type of goods. According to the definition given by the Lisbon Agreement of the World Intellectual Property Organization, to be granted an appellation of origin, a product must be prepared in a distinctive way through particular production methods and interaction between men and their land. In addition, the product takes up the name of the place where it is manufactured. Such is the case of pisco: in the world, there is only one place called Pisco where this fine liquor is prepared, and where specific climate characteristics and a precise production method converge. And this place is in Peru.[9] 

Chile disagrees, arguing that the term pisco has been used in both counties for over 200 years.  And of course, there is now a town called Pisco in Chile too:  in 1936 Chilean Law Decree 5.798 changed the name of the town "La Unión," a center of pisco production, to "Pisco Elqui.”[10]   I don’t know whether that strengthens or weakens Chile’s case, but it’s a very nice town.

 The plaza in Pisco Elqui.

[1] Cortés Olivares,  Hernán F.  2005 El origen, producción y comercio del pisco Chileno,
1546-1931.  Revista Universum (Universidad de Talca)  20(2):48.  On line at ..
[2] Iglesias, Pepe.  2006.  Historia del aguardiente. Historia de la cocina. On line at
[3] Gay, Claudio. 1862-1865.  Agricultura, Tomo 2. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, p. 202-213 On line at
[4] Codelia Contreras, Catalina. 2004. Trabajo informal en una zona rural: La producción clandestina de aguardiente en Doñihue, 1950-1980. BA thesis in history, University of Chile. On line at
[6] Davis, William Heath. 1929. Seventy-five Years in San Francisco.  Second Edition,
Edited by Douglas S. Watson
San Francisco: John Howell. Chapter 38. ) On line at
[7] "Aguardiente obtenido exclusivamente por destilación de mostos frescos de uvas pisqueras (Quebranta, Negra Corriente, Mollar, Italia, Moscatel, Albilla, Torontel y Uvina) recientemente fermentados, utilizando métodos que mantengan el principio tradicional de calidad establecido en las zonas de producción reconocidas". Pisco del Perú, Wikipedia, La enciclopedia libre.  On line atú
[8] Cortés Olivares, op. cit. p. 54
[9] Exclusive Peruvian appellation of origin, The words of an expert. Cona Pisco: Comisión Nacional de Pisco. On line at
[10] Pisco.  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. On line at


  1. I'm really not a fan of Chilean Pisco Sours- the lack of the smoothing egg white and angostura bitters makes me realise I'm just drinking lemon juice with 10 kilos of sugar in it. The egg white really mellows the mouth sucking effect of the lemon juice I find.

    There's a black-boxed Alto del Carmen pisco that is 50%, although I haven't seen it for a couple of years. Maybe it was a special edition..?

  2. Hummm.... I've never seen it, though Alto del Carmen Pisco Envejecido at 40% comes in a black box.

  3. Yeah, I saw that aged pisco the other day as well. The 50% stuff must have been a special was seriously strong. I took a bottle of it over to Buenos Aires when I was living there, made pisco sours and gave everyone terrible hangovers the next day..!

  4. Sra. Müller,

    I'm glad you found it too. And when you bring your husband to Chile he will find many piasanos, especially in the south. When I first arrived I spent 2 weeks at La Torre Suisa in Villarrica ( a charming couple, Beat and Claudia.

    Saludos - Jim

  5. a very successful site. Also very revealing article. Thanks to the contributors.

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    Best wishes - Jim

  7. Excellent article, Jim. One minor edit and two comments:
    -The liquor made with cherries (guindas) is spelled guindado, not gindado. The pronounciation changes accordingly.
    -I've never seen pisco sour served on the rocks, neither in Chile nor in Peru.
    -The best Chilean pisco sour is prepared with limón de pica including some of the peel, in a blender with ice, strained, chilled, and served promptly (it gets bitter if you store it). I first had it years ago at Restaurant Divertimento, close to one of the entrances to Parque Metropolitano in Santiago, but they have since reverted to standard pisco sour prepared in bulk and stored in the fridge - ok, but not great. If you are interested I'll get you the exact recipe.

    Best regards,

    Björn (Chilean in Rhode Island)

  8. Björn,

    Thanks for the correction on guindalo. And I agree that your recipe would make an excellent pisco sour. But the recipe above is 100% better than the premixed pisco sour that a shockingly large number of Chilenos drink at home. (Meanwhile, I stick to wine.)


  9. Interesting comment, and a bit odd... until you click on "algevis" and find that he is Dr. Ali Mezdeği Op, a Turkish cosmetic surgeon specializing in boob jobs. Still, one wonders. :-)


Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim