A Portuguese Tradition
Distillation of Aguardente using a 150 year old copper Alembic Still
Modern civilization has brought us many conveniences and in a world where time is money we are always trying to find a quick and easy solution to our problems and to meet our needs with the least amount of hassle. So in fact life is easier and more relaxed than it used to be. But is it really? Or have we lost a certain quality due to the pressures and stresses of our daily lives and quality in the things we consume, as they are all now either canned or bottled with added preservatives.
People are slowly realizing that the old fashion way of doing things is in fact much better and they are rediscovering traditions that were left behind which can bring us great pleasure.
The following is a narrative of one of these traditions – distilling pomace or brolho (the solid matter that is left over after the juice is removed from the grapes) to produce arguardente (grappa- wine brandy) with an alembic still that is at least 150 years old and a description of the techniques and equipment that was used by the older folk. You might say it is much easier just to go out and buy a bottle, but there is much more to the process than just obtaining the desired liquid, it is an experience that brings us pleasure, just like any other hobby. We also know that the final product is pure – just like baking a home-made cake or growing your own organic vegetables.
This distilling experience took place in a small village near Monção, a town located in the north-west of Portugal, close to the Spanish border.
The complete distilling process using a traditional Portuguese copper alembic took about 8 hours to complete (mind you – it was an enjoyable and relaxing experience) – this also included cleaning the pot for next year's distillation.
The day was beginning to break when we set off but you could tell it was going to be a beautiful autumn day as the sky was clear and the air crisp. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Leandro's rooster (Portugal's national mascot), with his 'cock-a-doodle-do" and by Leandro himself, the kind old gentleman who was going to give us the distilling demonstration. We could tell that Leandro had been expecting us for some time now, so this meant we were late!
Leandro was anxious to start as there was much to be done until the end of the day. He led the way to the little hut where we were going to make the aguardente. The first thing we saw was the cask hood (the area where the vapours gather) of Leandro 's alembic still. It was quite odd looking. Leandro explained the reason for this was that it was 150 years old. The hoods of most alembics manufactured today have more of a curved, onion shape top – but they all basically function in the same manner.
Leandro told us, with certain detectable emotion in his voice, that this alembic still had belonged to his grandfather. During the Second World War, however, his father sold it to a neighbour as he was hard up for money and needed all the extra cash to get by during those difficult times.
Leandro's father, who was known as one of the best wine growers in the region, always spoke of the family alembic with grief. Leandro always felt a certain obligation to get the alembic back into his family's possession. Years later he did just that. He asked his neighbour how much he wanted for the copper alembic that his father had sold him: 'The yield of one distillation from Aires' (his father's surname) alembic". Leandro was very proud of his family's 150 litre copper alembic.