National Pisco Day in Santiago, Chile

Earlier this year I traveled to Chile for National Pisco Day which was actually a week-long party celebrating their national spirit. I’d like to thank Pisco Chile and New Legacy Wine and Spirits for the opportunity. Without their help and guidance, I would have never seen so much of Chile or learned so much about the grape spirit.

This is the first of four parts of my travel diary.

lasagna at Nova Park Hotel

On one bright afternoon in May, I arrived at the airport with great anticipation for my upcoming ten and half hour flight. I knew it was going to be the opposite weather (as it’s opposite seasons) so I packed layers and a heavier jacket. I anticipated the weather to be sunny but cool at night, much like Southern California.

I knew one other person on the flight and you can read the Whiskey Jug’s piece here.

pisco sour from Nova Park Hotel

Most people tried to go to sleep right away but being a night owl, I watched movies until we landed in the early morning hours in Santiago. We were too early to check in but eventually we got into our rooms a bit early at Nova Park hotel. Our first introduction to Chilean pisco was at the hotel where we had both lunch and dinner. Looking back on the trip, they made my favorite pisco sour.

I had lasagna for lunch and short ribs for dinner. It was the beginning of my week of meat.

pisco cocktails at Bellavista Square for National Pisco Day

We headed out to Bellavista patio where we saw many pisco producers giving everyone a taste. Although I don’t speak Spanish I was able to procure a tasting glass and hopped from table to table. We were allowed to keep the tasting glass which unfortunately I had to leave behind due to lack of luggage space. To create your own pisco tasting experience, I recommend cordial glasses (small tulip shaped glass).

I’ve had pisco before and yes, even Chilean pisco. You may have heard of the feud between Chile and Peru on which country distilled it first. They both have recognized DOs (denomination of origin) but Chile’s has had theirs much longer (1931 versus Peru’s 1991). Chile’s DO is only the second recognized DO in the world and the first for South America. I also learned from a local professor whom I met one night for dinner that Chile has the earliest records mentioning pisco. As you can imagine, Peru disputes this. The best explanation I got about that was the borders may not have been so rigid. Is it possible it came about the same time? The Spaniards taught the natives how to make wine. Later I heard another story from the professor that it was the pirates that terrorized the natives after they ran out of rum and were appeased by pisco.

But what I found fascinating and possibly the oddest fact is Chile exports very little of their product (approximately 15-20% export) and in fact imports more Peruvian pisco than any other country. Now, Chile already produces about three times as much of pisco than Peru in the first place. Yes, folks, they love pisco so much they buy from their neighbors! I didn’t ask them about the Bolivan singani however…

After a deep sleep, I woke up early the next day to board a flight with journalists from all over the world. Besides my fellow LA writer, there were media from Russia, Poland, Argentina and Brazil in addition to our Chilean guides. After a short local flight, we landed in La Sirena, a beachside town.

Pisco Capel

A van took us to Pisco Capel, one of the largest pisco producers in Chile. This was their visitor center where we learned how pisco is made. Did you know the word pisco actually comes from the vessel used to hold the booze? Yes, see the big jars in the photo? Now imagine them holding gallons of the stuff. ** there is some dispute over the word’s origins but I’m going to go with the container theory.

pisco – the big urn

Pisco is an unaged grape spirit also known as eau de vie or brandy. Usually brandies are aged. In Chile though I found some producers did age their pisco. There are no laws governing aging so we encountered pisco aged in a local wood as well as American white oak. The unaged version is called transparent. In Chile, you may use any of the 13 grape varietals as listed in the DO though most use only the five popular ones of muscat; yellow, pink, Alexandria, torontel and Pedro Jimenez. Also, according to the Chilean DO, pisco can only come from one of two regions in Chile; Atacama and Coquimbo. All other “pisco” made in other regions is actually called aguardiente (Peruvian pisco must use this label when exported to Chile).

Tasting with pairing at Pisco Capel

I really enjoyed the paired tasting at Capel. Although I got to try many of their line the evening before at the hotel, it was nice to be led through this informative tasting. Plus the pairings were right on the money.

steak at Pisco Capel

Generously, Pisco Capel also provided lunch. Before heading off to Chile, I had read up on the cuisine. It’s fairly meat heavy but there are salads and other vegetables After a lovely soup, we had a terrific steak that was cooked perfectly. The potatoes were quite different from what I’ve had before and I quite enjoyed them. They seemed buttery though I didn’t see any butter on them.

You can find Pisco Capel in the US and I know I’ve seen it on drinks menus in LA.

Pisco Armidita

In the evening, we had dinner with a couple of local Atacama pisco producers including Armidita and Bou Barroeta. I had seen Armidita the evening before in Santiago and met one of the three sisters currently running the distillery. At this dinner, the other two sisters presented their pisco to us. My understanding was there had been a bad drought and their father ended up concentrating on wine making but he taught them how to make pisco. And they also run a wine shop in the area. Atacama is a desert and we talked about their recent super bloom (probably around the same time LA experienced a super bloom after a long drought). And then it was casually mentioned the region is also known for UFO sightings because of the “energies” in the area. These are most likely the electromagnetic energy. You can’t tell now as there are plenty of shrubs and things but during the drought, the desert did have a terrain like Mars. And so Hollywood has made some films about “space” filmed in Chile!

For dinner we had an octopus ceviche that was refreshing along with local fish with a hearty sauce.

Armidita wine

Armidita also makes wine including a sweet one called pajarete. These are also made with muscat (moscatel) grapes. We tried both the white and aged pajarete. Currently they are making less than 10,000 bottles of pisco but I hope they still find a way to export to the US one day. I really liked the designs on the labels which features native art. By the way, the name Armidita is a name of a local girl who died young generations ago. It is their way of remembering and honoring her.

After our early morning wine tasting, we headed to the home of Bou Barroeta.

… to be continued

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