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Spanish Secrets: Unlawful Or Illegal?

“…the tiniest sip had my head spinning and my throat, lungs and stomach feeling like I had swallowed a velvet-lined hot-water bottle…’’

Craig Briggs samples the delights of aguardiente, a Spanish spirit distilled from the remnants of wine production.

For more of Craig’s tasty columns click on Spanish Secrets in the menu on this page.

It’s a question I’ve mischievously asked on numerous occasions. Most people think there is a difference. Some even attempt to respond in an elaborate and academic manner. The answer though is simple.

Unlawful, is an action committed contrary to the constitutional laws of the land, whereas illegal is a sick bird!

This humorous anecdote sums-up the local attitude to the illegal distillation of aguardiente. For those unfamiliar with aguardiente, it’s the Spanish equivalent of Italian grappa, or Greek ouzo.

This highly alcoholic spirit is made from the remnants of wine production. Other than that I knew nothing of this secret process, but was eager to learn.

To try and find out more, I decided to ask our friend Pablo if he could help in my quest. At this very same time and by a remarkable coincidence, his father-in-law, who he and his family live with, would soon be making this year’s supply. He agreed to call us when a date had been set.

Over a week passed without a word. We were beginning to think that the ancient mystery of aguardiente distillation would remain a closely guarded secret. When the call finally came we had just 30 minutes to ready ourselves and complete the 15-mile drive to Pablo’s.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. We turned off the main highway and sped along the country track to Pablo’s farmhouse. The sight of an unfamiliar vehicle alerted his dogs to their sentinel duties. This in turn alerted Pablo to our arrival.

Hastily he chained the larger of the two to a robust post at the back of a shaded kennel. I couldn’t help notice that it bore more than a passing resemblance to a wolf. The smaller of the two dogs ran to greet us. Its tail wagged furiously as it jumped up seeking loving attention.

Pablo welcomed us and guided us to an open doorway. The air inside was cool and dark and my eyes struggled to focus after leaving the bright sunlight. The atmosphere carried the unmistakable odour of livestock. He led us down a short corridor pausing halfway along. The floor was covered with hay and in a stall to the left was a young calf. It had a milky-brown hide and peered at us through disproportionately large, deep-brown eyes.

“We kill it in two or three months,’’ exclaimed Pablo in his heavily accented English. “It’s normal in the country.’’

A doorway at the end of the corridor led into a barn. It was covered from the elements with corrugated opaque-plastic roofing.

Sitting along one wall on several breezeblocks, cushioned from their rough surface by handfuls of straw, was an enormous copper bowl, at least a metre in diameter. Resting on top of that was a bulbous cone-shaped piece of copper, funnelling at the top into a tube. The tube arced from the top at an angle of just over 90 degrees, flowing slightly downward. This metre long tube ran into a large copper water tank. Inside the tank the tube was coiled like a spring, flowing gently downward to the base of the tank and out through its side at the bottom. The whole contraption was at least two metres high and the same in length.

Into the bowl, which resembled a witches’ caldron, went the remnants of the wine fermentation. Grape skins, seeds, stalks and even the odd vine leaf all went into the pot. This fluid mixture of waste was a deep cherry-red colour and the aromas were intoxicating.

The joints of all the various copper parts were then sealed with a flour, water and ash paste. All that remained was to ignite a gas burner under the copper bowl and wait 12 hours or more.

The results are worth the wait - a crystal-clear liquid with a specific gravity of 26. I really have no idea what the figure means, but the tiniest sip had my head spinning and my throat, lungs and stomach feeling like I had swallowed a velvet lined hot-water bottle.

With the secret now revealed, my search for a still has begun.

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