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Pt 2: wine > distilling> aguardente

The distilling of wine is an ancient practice which continues to be popular across South America, Spain and here in Portugal. Maybe the most well known wine-spirit is the Italian digestive grappa, which Portuguese aguardente tastes most like.

You can make aguardente from sugar cane, fruit, potatoes, grains and even honey. In that case we would call it rum (sugar cane), vodka (sometimes potatoes), whisky (grains), or gin (juniper berries). A wide variety of herbs and spices are often added as flavourings, and the distilled spirit may be aged in wood which alters its colour and flavour, but essentially all spirits start life in the same way. In my region aguardente is specifically made from the crushed grapes and juice of the morangueiro vine.


If you are lucky, you’ve inherited or bought a house with a still, or alambique in Portuguese. If I’ve learnt something from the wine making experience, if you have an old set-up, then you’ve got the technology; keep it. And use it! My neighbour’s alambique is more than 100 years old which indicates it’s been thoroughly tried and tested and it still works. My neighbour’s son has heard stories from his grandfather about his grandfather using this very still. He was the master. But it could have gone much further back than that. Nobody knows.


The still is made up of 4 parts. First below, the fireplace at floor level, and above it the copper still. From the top of the still, a copper pipe descends through a cooling bath, and out the other side carrying the condensation of the heated wine, into a bottle. This clear liquid has about 20-25% alcohol and can be drunk now ‘raw’ or aged either in bottles or in oak barrels. As it ages, the spirit gradually changes from clear to honey-brown, and its flavour and alcohol content will develop. Some aguardentes have an alcoholic potency of 60 or 70%.

aquadente still

Getting to that is a very simple process. Pick your grapes. Squash them and leave to to ferment for a week. Pour off some of the wine.

Clean out your still by lighting the fire and running vinegar & water solution through the system. Then you gather the leaves of a shrub called carquejo and line the bottom of the still with it – this is to stop the wine/grapes from burning the bottom of the copper pot.

Next, in his 80 litre still, my neighbour first puts in 10 litres of wine, or the first juice from the pressed grapes. Then 60 litres of pomace and then 10 more litres of wine.

aquadente bottles

Then he sits and watches it until the condensation starts trickling out the spout, at that point it’s important to watch the level of the fire, not to raise it, but not to let the temperature drop so that the distilling is interrupted. During this period many neighbours will drop by for a chinwag, to share a roasted sausage or chestnut and sample a drop of the goodstuff. It will take all weekend to make about 8 litres of aguardente. And then it will take all year to drink it.

The preferred Portuguese way to drink aguardente is to add it to an espresso. In some areas it’s traditional for breakfast, which makes me wonder what they’ll have for lunch. Throughout Portugal it’s a winter warmer, but me myself when I’m at home, I like it on crepes suzette.

crepes suzette


  1. PAULO REIS December 7, 2009 12:17 am Reply

    You can make ginginha with agua-ardente if you can guet ginjas a tipe of cherry but biter, just had sugar , jinjas and agua-ardente and live it in barrel for 1 year. I like agua-ardente velha (old) after diner with a nice bica , in sumer cold aguardent is nice , moderation on that stuf , you can alucinate …boa sorte emma.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 9th, 2009 at 8:37 am

    thanks paulo, i’m a big fan of ginginha and those little shops in lisboa…and we love a recipe shared, thankyou!

    [Reply to comment]

  2. Ben December 7, 2009 1:02 am Reply

    Hi Emma,

    We recently tried it kind of flambe’d on top of a fried chorizo – it was very nice and burns down to a quite sweet taste…recommended!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 7th, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Oh yeah – my brother in law likes it so much he had to write a post about it (choriço assado com aguardente)… yum

    [Reply to comment]

    Isabel   Reply: December 7th, 2009 at 10:19 am

    @Ben, you don’t really need to fry the chouriço. If you just flambé it, it will be good. the little plates that are very convenient for that can be found anywhere: the fancy ones sometimes have the shape of a pig or something, the cheapest one are just plain. Chouriço is good, linguiça (thiner and spicier) is very good, too.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 9th, 2009 at 8:25 am

    and for the story and pics you can see “choriço assado com aguardente” http://www.emmashouseinportugal.com/category/guests/

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 9th, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Yep you’ve reminded me, it’s been a long time, and even more yummy in winter…

    [Reply to comment]


  3. Isabel December 7, 2009 1:08 am Reply

    Oh dear. I have one just like that, that takes an awful lot of space… Our intention was to move the thing to the adega, but I am afraid it has been there for the past N decades for a reason 🙁

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 7th, 2009 at 2:21 am

    I’m sorry, I didn’t think of you when I wrote that. But if I had to do my project again, I would do my house differently and keep the adegga, somehow. But the space issue is tricky, I know… if I had a still, I would definitely keep it. So old, so rare. Move it to the adegga – recruit some old blokes to install it again… but try to make the set up exactly the same as it was. x

    [Reply to comment]

  4. Pepper December 7, 2009 11:18 am Reply

    Emma: I’m so envious of your house in Portugal. I used to live overseas in Saudi Arabia and then in Norway. It was fun and I do miss all of the traveling and the adventures I had in each country. You should write a book about your adventures and living in Portugal. I know we would all love to read it. Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas in Portugal. How do you say this in Portuguese?

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 9th, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Envious? Golly, I’ve got to stop leaving out all boring stuff! Thanks pepper, and you would say “Bom Natal”!

    [Reply to comment]

  5. Fred December 7, 2009 6:58 pm Reply

    Never had a Grappa that I liked (please name the good stuff if you know?) but plenty of home made Aguardente that made me smile! I think it has an underestimated raw quality that makes me believe that I have grown up ; ) – aaargh it flies through the taste buds like nothing else…will put some pictures of the kinder Ginginha Variety on your FB page; http://www.facebook.com/pages/Emmas-House-in-Portugal/54399357957?ref=nf

    [Reply to comment]

  6. Joao P January 31, 2010 5:05 am Reply

    I just came across your site and instantly became attached to it! I’m always interested in the way foreigners really live in Portugal and the way you try to recover old traditions like destillery.
    Shame on many guys nowadays drinking wisky when we (still) have many aguardentes and bagaceiras.
    All the best on your project!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 1st, 2010 at 2:01 am

    thanks joão… mmm, and jeropigas too…

    [Reply to comment]

  7. val September 27, 2010 2:09 pm Reply

    hello ! i was wondering if anyone knew what carquejo is and can you find it in canada? asked my parents but there not fimiliar with the plant atleast not from faial or Terceira.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: September 28th, 2010 at 3:28 am

    Hi Val! Carqueijo is a shrub, with quite fine, dry rough leaves…
    I´ll see if I have a pic of some. My neighbours use it to line the still before putting in the grape must. Hmm… try wiki?

    [Reply to comment]

  8. Steve September 28, 2010 7:52 pm Reply



    Genus: Baccharis
    Species: genistelloides
    Synonyms: Baccharis trimera, B. triptera , B. venosa, Conyza genistelloides, Molina venosa
    Common Names: Carqueja, bacanta, bacárida, cacaia-amarga, cacalia amara, cacália-amarga, cacália-amargosa, cacliadoce, carqueja amara, carqueja-amargosa, carqueja-do-mato, carquejilla, carquejinha, chinchimani, chirca melosa, condamina, cuchi-cuchi, quimsa-kuchu, quinsu-cucho, quina-de-condamiana, tiririca-de-balaio, tres-espigas, vassoura
    Parts Used: Entire plant, aerial parts

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: September 29th, 2010 at 4:32 am

    thanks steve, great work.

    [Reply to comment]

  9. Steve September 29, 2010 4:54 am Reply

    Carqueja makes an interesting infusion (tea). We learnt that from one of the salt makers down near Figueira da Foz – he also said carqueja was one of the things that vessels taking salt up into the Beiras used to bring back…

    I haven’t managed to find any around us… I’m told it’s here, but somehow I’ve missed it. We are in the Tabua area.

    [Reply to comment]


  10. Mary Lou March 15, 2012 6:00 am Reply

    Dearest Emma,

    Found you by happenstance and have so enjoyed your posts.
    I’m originally from Terceira, Azores and love all that is Portuguese…your writing style has me in stitches!! Love it!

    Kind Regards,

    Maria de Lourdes 🙂

    [Reply to comment]

  11. Ann June 9, 2018 11:21 pm Reply

    Can you buy aguardente in the US?

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: June 24th, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    surely you can? google is your friend…

    [Reply to comment]


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