Making Aguardente

Written by  //  March 16, 2011  //  eat  //  3 Comments

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 is sort of similar to.

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 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 have for lunch. Throughout Portugal it’s a winter warmer, but me myself when I’m at home, I like it on crepes suzette.

3 Comments on "Making Aguardente"

  1. Clive August 21, 2011 at 11:45 pm · Reply

    Hi Emma,

    Thanks for the info on how aguardente is made on your side of the serra. Here in the east of Portugal many oldsters clean their teeth after breakfast using aguardente and a toothbrush. As its a strong antiseptic it makes sense.
    Near Castelo Branco the climate is much drier and the wines stronger, wine is not usually put into the alembique. This means the distillation is quicker, and we get up to 40 litres of top quality aguardente in one day. I posted lots of pictures and wrote about it last October on my blog (cliveboden.wordpress.com).
    And congratulations on your marriage, may you have lots of years of happiness together :-)

    Clive B.

  2. Jeannette October 15, 2013 at 10:53 am · Reply

    Hi was wondering if you could give me some info. I made my first wine here in Portugal in 2011..the grapes were 18% sugar and I produced a glorious strong wine. A friend took 8 sacs of pomace and made abut 68L of aguardente at 85%. This year I am now living here and had a bumper crop of grapes at 22% sugar. The wine promises to be equally good but stronger. I have made about 1000L. I decided to take the mountain of pomace to a distillaria near Caria(belmonte), I live near Vale De Prazeres. There were 20 sacs of pomace which filled 18 large trugs and occupied 2 pallets. I said my first wine had given 68L of AD. I was told to collect at 8pm as they were obviously busy. I experienced the usual..oh English, lone female reaction. I was shown the stills and the man measured some Ad coming off at 90%. I went back 2 hours early to take my own containers instead of buying off them. Surprise “my” Ad was already waiting in the corner..exactly 69L and 60%. When I challenged him on quantity and strength I was dismissed as being stupid. My Portuguese was not good enough to fully explain. I do feel I have been taken for a ride and would like to do something about this. My nose is good..I do not feel the Ad I was given was that produced from my grapes, the production of which is totally organic as is the wine. Given my original figures these to me do not add up..sure I would expect some descrepency…not half the quantity or 25% less in alcohol. Would appreciate your thoughts. Many Thanks
    Jeannette

    • Clive December 3, 2013 at 10:10 pm · Reply

      Hi Jeannette,
      Several points:
      1. The bagaço may have been wetter / drier than in 2011, so different amount of starting liquid.
      2. The alcohol content of the bagaço depends on whether it has been allowed to ferment further after racking the wine from it.
      3. From my experience getting 68L of 85% aguardente from that amount of bagaço is very good distilling! I’d have expected less, unless the sacks were really big and strong.
      4. Why go to Belmonte when you have lots of local farmers with alembics around Vale de Prazeres? Ask Tristan.
      For more help contact me via “comments” in my blog.

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