This story begins with a great misunderstanding: looking for a new route to the Indies, Christopher Columbus encounters a New World, initiating an intense exchan- ge of products, cultures, and visions. Spanish colonizers brought with them European plants and animals, in order to ensure access to their usual nourishment during their lifetime in the New World.
Mirrors, salted meat, firewood, legumes, and vines were some of the first products that Europeans began exchanging for gold, tobacco, animals, and other exotic products from the Americas.
The Spanish vine adapted with surprising speed to our fertile soils, delivering much more wine than what was necessary to celebrate Mass and support the evangelizing process. This is how a flourishing wine industry began in the Spanish colonies, espe- cially in the Viceroyalties of Peru and La Plata.
In 1549 the Chilean city of La Serena was refounded and the first vines were planted in its surroundings, which then extended to the valleys of Copiapó, Huasco, Elqui, Limarí, and Choapa.
The unique characteristics of these lands allowed the production of wines of high quality and intense sweetness. But it is precisely this sweetness that complicated the transportation of this sought-after product, because it deteriorated rapidly.
To ensure proper preservation, and as a way to reduce the transported volume, producers began to extract alcohol from the wine. This process, known as distillation, was leveraged by the presence of copper and craftsmen specialized in working it, called “fragüeros”. They forged the copper still, which is to this day the soul of the pisco. In 1586 María de Niza registered in Santiago the first still in South America.
The brandy was bottled in pots of cooked clay called “piscos”, containers manufactu- red by the indigenous people of the area that we know today as part of Peru and Chile. Thus, they made long voyages to supply vast mining areas of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
In the heart of the Elqui Valley, next to the Claro River, south of the actual town of Monte Grande, pisco was born. In the 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 registered in a Protocol made 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 containers with pisco in this vineyard. Since then, the custom of using the word pisco to name the local brandy spread through the haciendas of the area, in Diaguitas and other towns of the Elqui Valley.
Hacienda La Torre was the work of Don Pedro Cortés y Mendoza, known up to nowa- days as the “Hero of Tongoy” for his determined action against pirates in 1686. 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 threat from overseas. Hence, in the narrow space between the Claro River and the mountain foothills, estates were established with all the equipment and facilities necessary to produce wines and distill spirits.
This area had significant strengths, such as the distance from the shores, leaving the haciendas out of the reach of pirates. This distance served to ensure the security of investments and encouraged local inhabitants to move to the area.
The altitude of the territory (1,200 meters above sea level) represents an important advantage for distillation, because the temperature needed to reach the boiling point of the water is inversely proportional to the altitude. Therefore, under these condi- tions, stills are more effcient. In addition, the higher thermal amplitude of the moun- tain has a positive efect on the physiology of vine strains. The valley stands out for having a special microclimate and for the fertility of its soil, highly valued today to produce fresh fruit.
The winegrowers of Coquimbo led the diversification of Chilean viticulture; while in the rest of the country only the grape “país” was grown, in the Township of Coquimbo began to grow the Muscat of Alexandria as well, in the early eighteenth century. From the coexistence of these two varieties, and thanks to the process of cultural and natu- ral selection, the native grapes emerged. Over time, they would form the rich variety of pisco grapes: Austrian Muscat, Pedro Jiménez, Yellow and Pink Muscat (“Pastilla”), among others.
Precisely in the Hacienda La Torre, the first clay oven was registered, as well as the first alcohol still in northern Chile. These innovations were then imitated by other local hacienda owners, and soon the dynamic wine-growing pole of northern Chile was completed. The inventories of goods preserved in the national archive reposito- ries show in detail the investments that these estates had between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century.
On June 9th, 1750, the notarized testament of Ms. Gerónima de Rivera y Rojas, in San Ildefonso de Elqui, included 9 pisco “botijas” or vessels. In 1758, a pisco “botija” appeared in the will of Don Cristóbal Rodríguez.
After the death of Don Pedro Cortés y Mendoza at the end of the seventeenth century, his work was continued by his son Don Juan Cortés y Godoy (1717-1727), and then administered by the former Corregidor de Coquimbo, Don Marcelino Rodríguez Guerrero (1727-1733).