Origin and Identity of the Chilean Pisco

Historical research

Pablo Lacoste, author of the book «El Pisco Was Born in Chile»

The conduct of historical research on the origin of the pisco in Chile has allowed to know the genesis of the first Denomination of Origin of America.

The birth of the pisco was recorded in the context of the colonial viticulture that the Spanish Empire promoted in South America in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the specialized literature has shown in a timely manner, Spanish colonizers brought with them European plants and animals to ensure access to their usual food during their life in the New World. In this context, they introduced the vine in America, which extended in the sixteenth century to the Viceroyalty of Peru, which currently comprises the countries of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.  The vines spread in this region, and over time, they allowed to produce wines and spirits.

In northern Chile, the vines entered the sixteenth century and within a few years, were consolidated in the valleys of Copiapó, Huasco, Elqui and Limarí. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this activity took root with a view to supplying the local mining markets, mainly.

Norchilena viticulture was, in this period, a limited activity in its dimensions, very small compared to the large regional production poles. There are no rigorous and comprehensive statistics from that time. However, from the available information, approximately the following proportions can be estimated: In the Coquimbo corregimiento there were 400 thousand vines; in the Corregimiento de Cuyo (San Juan and Mendoza, mainly) there were 4 million plants. In Peru, meanwhile, 15 million strains were grown in the Ica corregimiento and 10 million in Arequipa. The larger dimensions of these markets with respect to Coquimbo are explained by the markets; Whose supply was the Rioplatense pampean market; Arequipa sold its broths in Potosí (150 thousand inhabitants in 1611); Ica placed its products in the cities of Lima (80 thousand inhabitants) and in Cusco (40 thousand). In this context, the Northchilean producers only had a small capital town (La Serena, 2 thousand inhabitants) and the demand for the mining works in the area. The local market was small, limiting the scale of local production.

In this period, the wines and spirits began to be called by the production area: in Buenos Aires there was talk of San Juan brandy and Mendoza brandy; in Potosí the brandy of Moquegua or Arequipa was mentioned; in Lima and Cusco, Ica and Pisco’s brandy predominated. In Santiago de spoke of brandy of the Aconcagua, brandy of Cauquenes, among others. What did not happen was that some of these products began to be called directly with the name of the place of production of each broth. For example, in Buenos Aires there was no talk of «San Juan» or «Mendoza» to name the brandy of both cities. Nor was this phenomenon happening with the spirits of Peru’s corrections.

The great innovation occurred in the Elqui Valley. In the town of Pisco Elqui, next to the Claro River, south of Monte Grande. In this place, in Hacienda La Torre, the decision was made to use the word «pisco» to refer to the grape brandy made in the area. Thus it was formally recorded in a Protocol carved by the Writer of the Spanish Empire, in 1733, currently preserved in the Judicial Fund of La Serena of the National Archive, in Santiago de Chile. This document recorded the existence of three pisco bots in this vineyard; from there, the custom of using the word pisco to refer to the local brandy spread through the farms of the area, in Diaguitas and other localities of the Elqui Valley.

The investigation has allowed us to know details of Hacienda La Torre. This was the work of Don Pedro Cortés y Mendoza, known until now as the «Hero of Tongoy» for his determined action against pirates in 1686. We now know that, at the same time, Don Pedro promoted the emergence of a wine cluster at the eastern end of the Elqui Valley, 20 leagues east of La Serena, in response to the overseas threat.

Indeed, pirate attacks caused a strong impact on Coquimbo’s correction. The fire of the lobby building (1680) by pirate Bartholomew Sharp meant stripping the vulnerability of the Norchilen settlements. This traumatic experience pointed out to the locals that the Spanish Empire was in decline and was unable to guarantee the safety of its colonies. In the face of this situation, there were different reactions: some chose to leave the territory and emigrate; others remained, with a fearful attitude.

In the daily life of Chileans, the pirate’s aggressive incursion into La Serena in the late 17th century was remembered through these expressions. Originally, the name of the pirate Bartholomew Sharp was used to appeal the emotion of fear, as has happened elsewhere in the world; by this time, in Holland, mothers threatened their children with calling the Duke of Alba; and in the Middle East, long before, mothers evoked for the same purpose, the name of Richard the Lionheart. Like the Spanish duke and the English king, Sharp’s figure remained in the social imagination as a symbol of terror, violence and aggression. Over time, the words were changed; the original expression was deformed and became «eye to the charque», and even more degraded, in «eye to the charqui». According to Oreste Plath, the expression eye to the charqui «comes to watch from time to time what interests him, eye alert to the visible and the invisible, because it can be made possible». From there came derived expressions: «To make one a charqui: to mistreat him». The survival of this expression is a reflection of the level of impact caused by pirate attacks of the late 17th century on Chilean society.

Among the neighbors who decided to remain in the Coquimbo corregimiento, there was an innovative and active group. Led by Don Pedro Cortés y Mendoza, this sector made the decision to assert its presence in the region but, at the same time, take preventive measures in the face of possible overseas attacks. In this sense, they agreed to value the lands of the Upper Elqui Valley, to build their farms there with their vineyards, wineries and stills. These were located by the Claro River, between Monte Grande and Pisco Elqui.

The Claro River wine cluster had significant strengths:

1) Distance from the sea: This productive pole was 100 km east of the coast, leaving it out of the reach of pirates. This distance served to ensure investment security and encouraged local farmers to move their capital and investments to the site.

2) Altitude: Pisco Elqui is located at 1,200 meters s/n/m. This represents an important advantage for distillation, because the temperature required to reach the boiling point of the water is inversely proportional to the altitude. Therefore, under these conditions, stills are more efficient. In addition, the greater thermal amplitude of the mountain has a positive effect on the plant physiology of vine vine strains.

3) Soils and climates: The valley stands out for having a special microclimate and for the fertility of the soils, highly valued today for the production of fresh export fruit.

In addition, regional strengths were added, mainly:

4) The culture of the arriero: the arrieros dominated the art of land transport on the back of a mule through the Andes mountain range: from present-day Argentina they brought on foot cattle, yerba mate and products of Castile. From Coquimbo, meanwhile, they exported carved coppers, brandys. Through their constant coming and going through the mountain range, the arrieros ensured the provision of goods and services necessary for the winery’s wine farms, while offering a regular land transport service to export the surpluses. Thanks to their quiet and effective work, norchilenos reached regional markets, particularly Potosí.

5) Diversification of wine heritage: Coquimbo winemakers led the diversification of Chilean viticulture; while only the Country Grape was grown in the rest of the country, the Coquimbo Corregimiento began to grow the Moscatel of Alexandria early in the early 18th century. From the coexistence of these two varieties, and thanks to the process of cultural and natural selection, the Creole grapes emerged that, over time, would form the rich variety of fish grapes: Moscatel de Austria, Pedro Jiménez, Moscatel Amarilla (Torontel) and Moscatel Rosada (Pastilla), among others. It is important to note that the Alexandria Moscatel arrived in Chile’s Central Valley half a century later, and south of the Maule, a century later. The delicate task of the Northchilean winegrowers made it possible to constitute a diversified regional wine heritage, which was the basis of the current fish grapes, a pillar of the identity of the product.

6) The copper forges of La Serena: they were located two blocks from the Plaza de Armas, according to the map of 1713; there were the most skilled fragron masters and boilermakers from southern America, able to supply all kinds of copper utensils carved to the farms of present-day Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The harriers secured the distribution of La Serena and Huasco carved coppers through the region’s markets. This system facilitated the emergence of an economy of scale model and, consequently, specialization. Norchilenos copper fragers achieved remarkable mastery of the technique, particularly for the manufacture of stills. These were exported throughout the region, but at the same time reached local farms at the same time, particularly those in the Elqui Valley.

The owners of the Monte Grande – Pisco Elqui axis detected local and regional strengths, and set out to transform comparative advantages into competitive advantages. To move in that direction they planted the vines, erected the cellars and installed the stills. In the narrow space between the Claro River and the mountain ranges, the haciendas were erected with all the necessary equipment and facilities to produce wines and distill spirits.

There was a remarkable will for leadership in this wine cluster. Suffice it to note that the first vat oven in northern Chile (in Hacienda La Torre) was erected there and there was installed the first still of northern Chile (on the property of Don Rodrigo Rojas). These innovations were later imitated by the other local farmers, and soon the dynamic wine polo in northern Chile was completed. The inventories of goods preserved in the repositories of the National Archives show in detail the investments that these farms had between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Within this dynamic wine cluster there was the birth of the Chilean pisco. The specific place was Hacienda La Torre, owned by Don Pedro Cortés y Mendoza at the end of the seventeenth century, continued by his son Don Juan Cortés y Godoy (1717-1727), and then managed by the former Corregidor de Coquimbo, Don Marcelino Rodríguez Guerrero (1727-1733). Precisely during this last administration there was the invention of the pisco: in the inventory of goods raised after the death of Don Marcellin, together with the vineyard of 11 thousand plants, the winery and the distillation equipment, «three pisco botijas» were registered. This document demonstrates the antiquity of the pisco tradition in Chile, providing evidence of a trajectory of almost three centuries in the production of this product. And from that first record, the custom of naming grape brandy «pisco» began to spread to the Elqui Valley and northern Chile in general., a task that has remained alive to this day.

According to the current state of research on the subject, the oldest document found in Peru on the use of the word «pisco» to call the brandy, dates from 1825. This means that the «pisco» as grape brandy, started in Chile a century before in Peru.

Consistent with this original advantage, in the following centuries, a significant gap remained in Chile’s favor. It is sufficient to recall that the first label of Chilean pisco formally registered as Trademark and Trademark, in Chile, dates from 1882; while in Peru, the first label of «pisco» was formally registered in 1922. In addition, the delimitation of the pisco as Denomination of Origin, by means of a legal rule, occurred in Chile in 1931 and Peru, in 1994.

These records are not mere isolated data. On the contrary, they are milestones within a long and complex socio-economic process, of regional scale. To understand its details, it has been necessary to write a book of approximately 500 pages, which will be released on May 15, 2016.

The book is based on a remarkable documentary basis. The notary and judicial funds of the Coquimbo corregimiento have been certified, together with the funds of Contaduría Mayor, particularly the customs of Coquimbo, Huasco, Copiapó, Valparaíso, Santiago, Nueva Bilbao and Chiloé, in the XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries. The archive of the National Institute of Industrial Property (INAPI) has also been examined to study trademark and trademark registrations, particularly pisco labels, between 1882 and 1930. Based on rigorous theoretical and methodological work, this reconstruction of the first three centuries of Chilean pisco history has been elaborated.

The reconstruction of the three centuries of history of the Chilean pisco is an important basis to demonstrate the creative power of the peasants: they managed to invent a new product, called pisco, with certain characteristics given by their raw materials (pisquera grapes), their methods of elaboration and their cultural practices, all in a precise context (landscapes of the pisco).

This historical thesis shows that the pisco was born in Chile, and has developed in this country, as a typical product, for three centuries. This serves to demonstrate the identity and legitimacy of the Chilean pisco. It has its own story, with its protagonists, its social actors and its historical subjects. It is a product deeply rooted in the social fabric of Chile.

Paradoxically, for a long time, some economic and political interests denied the Chilean identity of the pisco and above all, its historical depth. A story was built on the supposed Peruvian supremacy over the Chilean pisco. From this fantastic account, diplomatic actions were carried out aimed at achieving ignorance of the Chilean pisco. Several Latin American countries accepted these arguments in good faith, and ended up closing their doors to the Chilean pisco. This manipulated account also came to Chile, and was reproduced by members of the national elite, including folklorists, writers, agronomists, sommeliers and gastronomes.

Based on the evidence presented in this research, we hope to provide sufficient evidence to recognize the role that perped the peasants of present-day Norte Chico de Chile in the process of creating, spreading and consolidating the pisco.

First brands and labels

In 1882, the winemaker José María Goyenecha – one of the most prominent staples of the fishing industry – registered in Copiapó the brand «Pisco G», becoming the first official register of a pisco brand worldwide.

The following year, the former governor of elqui’s department, Don Juan de Dios Pérez de Arce, registered the brand «PISCO YTALIA».

These labels established the characteristics of the identity of the piscos of the North Chico of Chile and marked the trend of what would come next. These records allowed to establish the basis of a style that was consolidated over time, as other producers became aware of the relevance of legal procedures before the State office, as an appropriate tool to strengthen the identity of the product. In the following years, different winemakers from Norte Chico followed this path: between 1894 and 1901 six other marbets were registered with the name «pisco» to refer to the Chilean product: Pisco Olegario Alba (1894), Pisco Aracena Navarro y Cía (1895), Pisco Luis Filomeno Torres (two records in 1897) and Pisco Aguila (1901).

In the years that continued this trend was consolidated. By 1930, 111 Chilean «pisco» labels had been registered using this name (pisco) to name the product.

Pisco G, 1882 Pisco G, 1886


Pisco Ytalia, 1883 Pisco Olegario Alba, 1884

Pisco Aracena Navarro y Cía., 1895 Pisco Luis Filomeno Torres, 1897

Pisco Luis Filomeno Torres, 1897 Pisco Eagle, 1901

Our partners

  • Agricola e Inmobiliaria San Félix S.A
  • Agroindustrial and Commercial El Rosario Ltda.
  • Agroindustrial Rio Elqui Ltda.
  • Cooperative Agricola Pisquera de Elqui Ltda.
  • Agricultural Hacienda Mal Paso y Cía. Ltda.
  • Agroproductos Bauza S.A
  • Sixluces S,A
  • Perigee & Spirits S.A
  • Vitivinicola Fundo Los Nichos S.A
  • Aba Distil SPA
  • Alamo Vineyards Ltda.
  • Destileria Julio Ernesto Taborga Artal EIRL
  • Marketer Atacama Gourmet Ltda.
  • Sociedad Vinicola Miguel Torres S.A
  • Doña Josefa de Elqui
  • Veronica Juliá Donoso
  • Pisquera Portugal

International recognitions

(Excel document attached)