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%.
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.
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.