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Spanish Secrets: Blind Drunk

Craig Briggs, having gathered in this year’s crop of grapes, hypothetically considers the distillation of aguardiente, a Galician fire-water.

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This year’s grape harvest was by no means our largest but I am convinced it will produce our best vintage to date. It was definitely a case of quality not quantity. Without exception every vine produced tightly packed bunches of sweet, juicy grapes.

Before we embarked on our week-long holiday to the Mediterranean coast, we’d harvested these fruity pearls. After being crushed, they were left in a stainless steel vat to naturally ferment. On our return it was time to separate the wine from the mash (skins, seeds and stalks).

We employ a crude but effective filtering system. The young wine is sieved through muslin, not once but twice. Afterwards it’s deposited back into a clean vat which is then air-sealed. In another eight to ten weeks we can begin to enjoy the fruits of our labour.

At this stage the remaining mash can be distilled into the local fire-water, aguardiente. Unfortunately here in Spain, home distillation is illegal. As such, our newly purchased potstill will remain an artistic example of the craftsmanship of local coppersmith, a curio to be placed on displayed and admired.

But if we had chosen to defy the authorities it may well have gone something like this.

Prior to buying a still it would have been a good idea to ask friends and neighbours for a tutorial in the ancient and extensively practised art of aguardiente distillation. By a remarkable coincidence, that’s exactly what happened earlier in the year.

Shortly after that lesson and by another remarkable coincidence, a beautifully crafted copper potstill, took my eye at our local open-air market. After a swift negotiation it was in the boot of the car and on its way to a new home. Hypothetically speaking we were now ready to begin our own home distillation.

Just after this purchase and by yet another remarkable coincidence, we met a very interesting retired chemist. At this chance meeting we discovered that home distillation might not be as straightforward as we’d first assumed. During conversation it transpired that several chemical compounds are produced throughout the distillation process. The main two are ethanol (alcohol) and methanol.

As everyone knows, when consumed to excess, the first of these can make you blind-drunk. What came as a surprise was that the second, methanol, simply makes you blind. These chemical words of wisdom could not have come at a more appropriate time.

More research was required. Thank heavens for my mate Google. After a few days of intensive investigation, I was confident of not only keeping my vision but also achieving the required alcoholic results.

With the wine safely stored it was time to scrape the remaining mash into buckets and from there into the waiting still. The rich aromas of concentrated wine filled the air as the damp mash slipped into the large copper pot. Once filled to the required level it was time to carefully assemble the still and seal all the joints with an ash and water paste.

Once preparations were complete, ignition could commence. The gas burner below the pot formed a circle of tiny blue-green flares. All that’s left to do is wait, and wait, and wait a bit longer.

After three hours the first perfectly formed tear of alcohol hangs from the spout of the condenser. In slow-motion, it falls into the waiting receptacle and splashes onto its base. Another nine hours pass before the flames are extinguished. The result is six litres of carefully bottled alcohol, ranging in proof from 50% to 84% by volume – hypothetically speaking, of course.

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